17/05/2019 20:20 BST | Updated 18/05/2019 09:31 BST

Inside The Secret Brexit Talks: How The Labour-Tory Negotiations Finally Collapsed

After countless cups of tea and sandwiches, even the magic ingredients of goodwill and trust were not enough to get a breakthrough

PA Wire/PA Images

When the Labour and Tory delegations arrived for their very first Brexit meeting in the grand surroundings of 70 Whitehall, the culture clash was obvious.

The sharp difference between the two sides was captured perfectly as Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s respective chiefs of staff entered the wood-panelled room.

Andrew Fisher is a radical leftwinger who was once suspended from Labour after tweeting a joke about supporting a ‘Class War’ candidate in the 2015 general election.

Gavin Barwell, his opposite number, is the former MP for Croydon Central, a former minister and Conservative party election machine specialist.

To add extra spice, it became swiftly apparent to those around them that the pair of them had ‘history’.

As they spied each other across the table, they both joked that the last time they had met was when Fisher had heckled Barwell at an angry public meeting in his London constituency.

Further light-hearted remarks were made about the various Twitterspats they had engaged in during their previous lives. But the ice had been broken, and everyone sat down to get on with the serious business at hand.

Now, after 43 days, six ‘plenary’ sessions, countless cups of tea and piles of sandwiches, the infamous ‘Lab-Con Brexit’ talks are finally over. And for the first time, details of what went on in the secret meetings can be revealed.

May’s deputy David Lidington formally opened that first 70 Whitehall meeting by admitting just how British politicians were so unused to cross-party consensus, though it was commonplace ‘on the continent’.

In the end, for all the goodwill on both sides and for all the technical negotiations, it was the political gap that proved ultimately too huge to bridge.

For the Tories, a major sticking point was the opposition’s insistence on a second referendum, with government insiders claiming Labour was clearly split on its stance.

PA Wire/PA Images
Seumas Milne, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer’s views had become ‘very strident’, one source suggested, and had effectively torpedoed the talks. No one else on the Labour team, from John McDonnell to shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey or shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman, had made the referendum such an issue, Tories claim.

Labour dismisses the charge, declaring that the party was consistent in making clear from the very first meeting that it had a conference policy on ‘the option of a public vote’ that was its starting point. Corbyn himself was the first to raise the issue in his meeting with May.

In fact, Labour counters that the real tensions were on the Tory side. Just as Princess Diana once famously complained “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”, so too did Corbyn’s team feel there were too many varying voices in the ministerial ranks.

Labour’s negotiators felt there were three separate factions they had to deal with. The first was the ‘sensibles’, led by David Lidington, Barwell, Greg Clark, Philip Hammond and chief Brexit civil servant Olly Robbins.

The second was the ‘pragmatic Brexiteers’ of Michael Gove, Steve Barclay and Chief Whip Julian Smith.

The third faction was “outside the room”, but nevertheless a real thorn in the side of the talks: the ‘hard Brexiteers’ of Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and others who were clearly unhappy at any watering down of May’s opposition to a future customs union between the UK and EU.

Few on the government side hide the fact that the cabinet has differing views on customs, but insiders stress that there was never any disunity ‘in the room’ itself, and a common position was taken at all times.

May's chief of staff, Gavin Barwell

Unsurprisingly, as the blame game got underway on Friday as the talks finally collapsed, ministers felt that the divisions were more on the Labour side.

Many of them were struck by how engaged and constructive Fisher and Corbyn’s strategy and comms chief Seumas Milne were. 

Starmer was ‘leading’ the talks for Labour however, and Lidington led for the government, and he was the one who most spoke about a confirmatory ballot.

Labour felt that the shadow Brexit secretary was making a practical point about how ‘deliverable’ any deal would be, and repeatedly mentioned just how many Labour MPs wanted to attach a public vote to it.

The talks covered just how that attachment could occur and whether a referendum could be ‘amended out’ of the legislation.

Given that the agenda for every meeting was literally written by the government, and a ‘public vote’ was on that agenda, some in Labour feel it’s an odd criticism to suggest Starmer insisted on talking about it at every meeting.

Although Lidington and Barwell, and Hammond particularly, were open to ways of making a referendum work, it was made very clear that May and many of her MPs were unlikely to ever countenance a referendum.

And while a public vote proved too high a hurdle for the Tories, it was the lack of ‘Boris-proofing’ that ultimately persuaded Labour it was time to pull the plug.

The Corbyn team had focused what they called ‘entrenchment’ of any deal. Adding new rights to the withdrawal agreement, in the form of a legal addendum, was explored, as was a plan to embed them in the ‘political declaration’ of future UK-EU relations.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who led on the economic and single market issues for Labour, was particularly vocal about the need for his party to know any deal wouldn’t just be torn up by May’s successor.

Jeremy Corbyn and chief of staff Andrew Fisher

One of the main drivers for the cross-party talks was advice from May’s European counterparts. Dutch PM Mark Rutte, long an ally of the UK in Brussels, had urged her to at least reach out to Corbyn to help produce a common position.

Yet HuffPost has been told that when May made her first dramatic offer to invite Corbyn in for talks on April 2, a former senior civil servant texted a member of the Labour leader’s team to say: “Tell Jeremy, this is a trap”.

The fear was Labour was being used to buy May time with her fractious party, and to be tarred with a ‘Tory’ Brexit. But in fact, it suited Labour to keep the talks going to prove Corbyn was a serious, PM-in-waiting. It also wanted to see if its own plans could win May’s backing.

Both sides insist that there was genuine goodwill and mutual respect during most of the meetings. Both were impressed that the others didn’t leak any substantive content and that there was no grandstanding rhetoric in the ‘plenary’ sessions with the main players.

And both were quietly pleased to have defied all expectations that the whole thing would blow up within days.

When the sides met for that first Whitehall meeting, the sense of occasion was boosted by the sheer fact that ministers had ‘put on a good spread’ for a working lunch. Chicken strips, onion bhajis, ham sandwiches, mini-sausage rolls, chocolate chip cookies, all helped smooth relations.

May and Corbyn met three times and were cordial and polite to each other. But the main function of their sessions was ‘schematic’, to pave the way for the detail of their teams.

And while it was the big ‘plenary’ meetings of ministers and shadow ministers that got most media attention, it was at an officials’ level that a lot of the heavy lifting was done and relations maintained, despite two big breaks for Easter and for the local elections.

Barwell and Fisher, and No.10 comms chief Robbie Gibb and Milne, attended every meeting apart from one-on-one ‘technical’ talks on specific issues like the environment. The sheer fact that they spent so many hours together was vital to building up trust.

In some areas such as continued membership of EU agencies and on security links, there was easy consensus. And while Labour seemed to give ground on things like state aid rules, the government seemed flexible on ‘dynamic alignment’ of regulations.

Yet on the vexed issue of customs arrangements, there was frustration on the Labour side that at times ministers simply made it sound as though May’s deal already contained everything Corbyn wanted.

The Guardian
Olly Robbins, May's chief Brexit negotiator

Certainly, Robbins – who had negotiated most of the deal with Brussels – was very keen to stress just how much of a ‘soft’ Brexit the deal represented on customs and trade. The language he used at some points was so ‘soft’ that some on the Labour side felt it would make the average Tory Brexiteer squirm.

However, the most tense meeting of the six weeks came a fortnight ago after someone in the government had told the Sunday Times of plans for a new temporary customs offer. It would be time-limited until the next general election as a way of providing a common bridge to the future, then each party could take its own course.

This plan was a total surprise to Labour and it was made plain in the meeting afterwards that negotiation via the media was not a smart way to proceed.

Another frustration was that while ideas would be discussed verbally in a meeting, and Labour would leave thinking progress had been made, when the ‘exploratory’ documents emerged afterwards they failed to reflect any such progress.

The government counters that, perhaps because it had the huge advantage of the civil service behind it, it was often just trying to explain the realities of what Brussels would and wouldn’t live with.

At times, both sides - particularly the chief whips - were very frank indeed about the difficulties of getting various proposals past their backbenchers.

On parliamentary process, rather than substance, one area where Labour made plain it would have difficulty was with ‘prior whipping’ of any ‘definitive votes’. The idea that it would agree to be bound by whatever outcome emerged from such votes was ‘for the birds’, one insider said.

The idea of ‘definitive votes’ wasn’t raised by the government until the past week and only then once it looked like other ideas were running out of energy.

Plans for exhaustive, run-off ballots on some issues, with hybrid systems for others, were discussed in the talks just before they finally ended, but with no conclusion.

On Thursday, Barwell and Fisher had one last go at finding a way forward. By then, the political climate had become impossible, with May signalling she may be gone as leader by the summer. 

Even now, with the talks finally over, both sides are keen not to directly brief too bitterly about the other.

And some of those involved think that the negotiations were not in vain. It is understood that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill has been ‘improved’ in some key areas as a result of the cross-party talks, not least on workers’ rights, environmental policy and giving Parliament a role on future UK-EU trade talks.

The six-week experiment is over. Some in Corbyn’s team now don’t expect anything on Brexit to change until there’s a new Tory leader. And it’s unlikely that leader will ever sip tea with ‘the Marxist’ on the other side of the Commons.