Leading Labour MPs have accused Theresa May of “desperation” after the government hinted the only way to get a fresh Brexit referendum was to vote for her new EU bill next month.
Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Liam Fox suggested that critics of the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill should let it clear its first hurdle in parliament so that they could push for a ‘confirmatory ballot’ at a later point.
And No.10 confirmed that although May was herself still opposed to a second referendum, the bill could be changed to include a ‘People’s Vote’ if enough MPs supported it in principle.
But Labour’s Peter Kyle, the co-author of a previous attempt to make any Brexit deal subject to a ‘public vote’, told HuffPost UK that backbenchers wouldn’t be tricked into supporting the legislation without a firm guarantee written into it.
“This is desperation from a prime minister who is no longer master of her own destiny. Having spoken to numerous Tory MPs in recent days, it is obvious there is no goodwill towards the prime minister, just anger and embarrassment,” he said.
“Number 10 know full well where Phil Wilson and I stand because we’ve told them. If they’re serious about engaging with a confirmatory ballot they will bring forward a withdrawal bill with one attached.
“If not, there isn’t a hope in hell of getting it through second reading let alone committee, report or third reading [stages] and then the Lords. Who are they kidding?”
May consulted key Cabinet ministers on Monday about the next steps in her gamble to get a deal passed by the Commons, ahead of a crunch meeting to decide the shape of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
The ‘divorce deal’ has been rejected three times by MPs, but among the options being considered to help sell it a fourth time are ‘definitive votes’ on alternatives like a customs union and a second referendum, as well as enhanced rights for workers and the environment.
Earlier, Hancock told BBC Radio 4 that backbenchers on all sides should support it in principle and then at a later stage seek to amend it.
“You need to vote for this legislation and then have the debate at the committee stages later on exactly what the details are,” he said.
“And no doubt there will be votes on the really big issues like whether to have a people’s vote and whether to have customs union.
“But if people don’t vote for the second reading of this Bill there will be no vehicle for getting us out of the European Union in Parliament.”
And international trade secretary Liam Fox later told Bloomberg TV: “If people want to have these arguments...[about]...a confirmatory referendum or anything else, the best way to do that is to pass the second reading of the bill and then move into the subsequent stages where they’re able to put down their own amendments, their own clauses and actually debate these issues at length.”
The PM’s spokesman then added: “It is a simple matter of fact that amendments can only be debated after a bill has achieved second reading.”
Some of May’s team hold out a faint hope that Jeremy Corbyn could whip his MPs to abstain on the second reading of the bill when it is voted on for the first time next month.
They also hope to woo Labour MPs with a string of new workers’ rights, while also pleading with Tory backbenchers to back fresh technological attempts to solve the Northern Ireland border issue.
But Kyle was dismissive of any move to tell the Commons to ‘hold its nose’ and come back to the detail of the bill later.
“We’ve had two years of smoke, mirrors and game playing. The prime minister has lost the right to say ‘trust me’ in the hope people like me will get her through a tricky situation in return for a vague promise of fair play down the road. She’s been found out,” he said.
“The Commons will take no more. So the choice is hers, not mine: amend the bill or be defeated yet again and plummet our country into further turmoil and an inevitable ‘no-deal’ or Remain referendum. The choice is hers to make, no one else’s.”