Brexit: Theresa May blames Labour divisions over second referendum for collapse of cross-party talks

'There isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit, or hold a second referendum which could reverse it', prime minister says

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 17 May 2019 13:30
Theresa May admits her party 'didn't want to be fighting' the European elections

Theresa May has blamed Labour divisions over whether to demand a fresh Brexit referendum for the collapse of the cross-party talks.

Giving her reaction – as she finally hit the campaign trail for the European elections – the prime minister pinpointed the issue of giving the public the Final Say on any deal.

Government sources are blaming Keir Starmer, the pro-referendum shadow Brexit secretary, for the breakdown – arguing Jeremy Corbyn was ready to strike an agreement.

Ms May hinted at that claim as she said: “In particular, we haven’t been able to overcome the fact that there isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit, or hold a second referendum which could reverse it.”

Earlier this week, Sir Keir was outspoken in warning a cross-party agreement would fail unless it included a public vote, saying “120 if not 150” Labour MPs would refuse to back it.

In contrast, Mr Corbyn has stressed the need to reach agreement on a permanent customs union – refusing to guarantee a referendum in all circumstances.

After the Labour leader pulled the plug, a government source was quick to pinpoint the “significant difference of opinion” within Labour on the referendum question.

“Keir Starmer has fairly strident views on this issue and he represented and led the Labour team during the ministerial plenary sessions,” the source said.

But a Labour source hit back, pointing out Brexiteer cabinet ministers had also voiced “strident” opposition to a customs union, saying: “Ultimately, this is a prime minister that can’t govern and can’t deliver.”

Speaking alongside a candidate in Bristol – after repeatedly refusing to say if the Tories would campaign to elect MEPs next Thursday – Ms May defended the talks, saying they had been “constructive and we have made progress”.

But she admitted: “There have been issues where we have been able to find common ground, but other issues have proved to be more difficult.”

The prime minister left open the possibility of staging further “indicative votes” in the Commons, to try to agree a way forward, although – without Labour backing – they now appear unlikely.

The vote on the withdrawal agreement bill will still be held in the first week of June, with the legislation likely to include protections on the environment and workers’ rights, to woo Labour MPs.

However, after Mr Corbyn said Labour would “oppose” the bill “without significant changes”, it is heading for a huge defeat likely to trigger Ms May’s resignation.

In Bristol, the prime minister – appearing in a function room at football stadium – took only a single question from the single reporter allowed to attend.

She stumbled, as she came close to saying her government “will deliver Brexit”, urging people to “vote for a party that wi....can deliver Brexit, vote Conservative”.

She added: “When MPs come to vote on the deal, they will be faced with a stark choice – to vote to deliver on the referendum, to vote to deliver Brexit, or to shy away again from delivering Brexit with all the uncertainty that that would leave.”

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