Brexit: Labour backlash scuppers Theresa May’s hopes of cross-party deal

Prime minister accused of exaggerating prospects to save her job – when her looming departure means it’s like negotiating ‘with a company about to go into administration’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 06 May 2019 07:59
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John McDonnell: 'we're dealing with a very unstable Government'

A fierce Labour backlash has hit Theresa May’s hopes of quickly striking a deal to rescue Brexit.

A host of senior Labour figures poured cold water on the chances of a breakthrough – even as a Tory source called Tuesday a make-or-break day.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the prime minister was inflating the prospects to try to save her job – meanwhile, Tories are piling on fresh pressure for her to quit.

Ms May was also accused of refusing to shift ground on a customs union and of risking the NHS going “up for sale”.

The collapse in support for her saw the talks likened to negotiating “with a company about to go into administration”.

The hostility followed the prime minister virtually pleading with Jeremy Corbyn to help deliver Brexit in a newspaper article, writing: “Put our differences aside for a moment. Let's do a deal.”

But her perilous position was undermined by a survey suggesting a record 82 per cent of Conservative members want her to quit immediately, following the party’s local elections wipeout.

As Ms May prepared for fresh demands to name a departure day when MPs return to Westminster, her own chief-of-staff quit a Tory WhatsApp group, protesting “I have had enough” of attacks on her.

The fresh acrimony between the two parties broke out as Labour claimed that details of the talks had been briefed to Tory newspapers to give the impression an agreement was only days away.

A Conservative source told The Independent the party was “optimistic” of a quick conclusion, saying: “Tuesday will be the time when we know the likelihood of a possible deal.”

An agreement had appeared more likely after both Ms May and Mr Corbyn – in the wake of their joint local elections defeat – were pushing their parties to compromise.

Strikingly, a senior Labour source denied the resumption of cross-party talks on Tuesday would be a make-or-break moment, even as the Tories insisted it would.

Although the prime minister has conceded a form of customs union, she appears to be pushing for it to be temporary, a demand that Labour says has not been raised across the negotiating table.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, dismissed the idea of progress, saying: “Although the government is trying to redress their customs union offer, they haven’t really shifted.”

Ruling out Tory hopes of still doing trade deals in services, he warned: “With the United States, that could mean Trump’s America and big private healthcare corporations getting their hands on NHS contracts.”

Mr McDonnell went further, saying he did not “trust” the prime minister because she had "blown the confidentiality" of the talks to prop up her position.

“She's jeopardised the negotiations for her own personal protection,” he said, adding: “We're dealing with a very unstable government.

“It's trying to enter into a contract with a company that's going into administration and the people who are going to take over are not willing to fulfil that contract. We can't negotiate like that.”

Mr McDonnell also came close to admitting his own side would demand a Final Say referendum on any deal, as Tom Watson, the deputy leader, has demanded.

Mr Watson himself said: “I don't think we should give false hope on this, it's going to be very difficult to find a negotiated settlement.”

Tory fears about a deal were spooked further by Nigel Farage boasting that 85,000 people have signed up to his new Brexit Party to make it “the fastest growing political force in the land”.

Almost £2m has flooded in within a few weeks from grassroots supporters, ahead of a predicted victory in the European elections later this month, the former Ukip leader said.

Rory Stewart, the new international development secretary, claimed the two parties were only “a quarter of an inch apart” – and even said a split in the Tory party was a price worth paying to secure a deal.

That split was laid bare by the survey for Conservative Home website, putting the proportion of party members demanding a new leader at 82 per cent.

The same website revealed Gavin Barwell, the No 10 chief of staff, had pulled out of the WhatsApp group on his Croydon home patch, because of “attacks I would expect from our worst opponents”.

Graham Brady, the head of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, is expected to meet Ms May on Tuesday to again urge her to set a date for her departure.

If she refuses, they will consider rewriting the rules to allow a fresh vote of no confidence this summer – a move the 1922 stepped back from last month.

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