Thursday 17 January 2019

Any decision on Brexit deal will happen in New Year - UK trade minister

  • Britain's Labour 'will try to force parliament Brexit vote next week'
  • Damian Hinds said UK government was not planning for a second referendum
  • UK would 'flourish and prosper' even without a Brexit deal - Jeremy Hunt 
Theresa May has faced criticised over the UK’s lack of clarity on the future relationship with Europe (David Hughes/PA)
Theresa May has faced criticised over the UK’s lack of clarity on the future relationship with Europe (David Hughes/PA)
Damian Hinds (Victoria Jones/PA)

Shaun Connolly

Britain's government is not preparing for a second referendum on Brexit, ministers said on Sunday, sticking to the script that Prime Minister Theresa May's deal could still pass through parliament with a few changes.

May delayed a vote last week on her agreement to leave the European Union because she was set to lose in parliament and has tried to secure "assurances" from the bloc to try to better sell it to sceptical lawmakers. Brussels said last week it was ready to help but warned her that she could not renegotiate the deal.

With less than four months before Britain is due to leave in March, Brexit, the biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years, is proving anything but smooth, complicated by the deep divisions in parliament and across the country.

With May facing deadlock in parliament over the deal and the EU offering little so far, more politicians are talking about the possibility of Britain leaving without an agreement or a second referendum that could stop Brexit from happening.

Asked if the government was preparing for a vote, education minister Damian Hinds told Sky News: "No, a second referendum would be divisive. We've had the people's vote, we've had the referendum and now we've got to get on with implementing it."

Trade minister Liam Fox also said a second referendum would "perpetuate" the deep divisions in Britain, adding that the prime minister was securing the necessary assurances to persuade parliament to back her deal.

Liam Fox. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Liam Fox. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

He said that would take some time.

"It will happen over Christmas, it's not going to happen this week, it's not going to be quick, it will happen some time in the New Year," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr show.

But the longer it takes, voices urging a change of tack are getting louder and the pressure on the main opposition Labour Party to move against the government is rising.

May survived a no confidence vote among her Conservative lawmakers last week, but opposition parties are calling for Labour to propose a parliamentary motion of no confidence against the government this week.

Labour has repeatedly said it will call such a motion at "the best time", or when it knows it can win, and for now will try to force the government to bring its deal to parliament sooner.

Andrew Gwynne, Labour's policy chief for communities and local government, said: "We will be using whatever mechanisms we have at our disposal next week to try and force the government to bring forward that deal for a vote before Christmas."

Read more: Does misogyny lie behind the abuse of Theresa May?

The statements follow comments Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who insisted the UK would "flourish and prosper" even without an exit agreement.

Mr Hunt has also said he wanted a "crack" at succeeding Theresa May after the Prime Minister takes the country through what he described as "this challenging next few months".

Mrs May made it clear she would step down before the scheduled 2022 general election as she fought off a backbench bid to topple her last week.

Mr Hunt's upbeat remarks on a no-deal scenario - saying the UK had faced much bigger challenges in its history - put him at odds with Cabinet colleagues like Justice Secretary David Gauke and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd who have warned about the impact of failing to secure an agreement.

However the Foreign Secretary told The Sunday Telegraph: "I've always thought that even in a no-deal situation this is a great country, we'll find a way to flourish and prosper. We've faced much bigger challenges in our history.

"But we shouldn't pretend that there wouldn't be disruption, there wouldn't be risk, and there wouldn't be impact and that's why as a responsible Government we have to make all the preparations necessary."

Asked if he would like to become PM, Mr Hunt said: "I think every MP has a corner of their heart that says they would like to have a crack at the top job. I'm no different.

"But I think the first thing is to get us through this challenging next few months and I passionately believe Theresa May is the right person to do that."

Mr Gauke suggested he could quit if Mrs May pursued no deal, telling the Financial Times: "I couldn't support a conscious decision to crash out at the end of March and I don't think there are many who could."

The minister said it was "sensible" to draw up contingency plans in case no deal is reached, but warned "fantasy options" will cause "real pain" for British people.

Ms Rudd has called for a cross party consensus on EU withdrawal after saying that Brexit "is in danger of getting stuck".

She said people should "ignore siren voices calling us to the rocks of no deal".

As Brexit continued to dominate politics, Mrs May launched a stinging attack on Labour former prime minister Tony Blair for "undermining" EU withdrawal negotiations by calling for a People's Vote.

The PM said: "For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.

"We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision.

"Parliament has a democratic duty to deliver what the British people voted for."

The outspoken attack on Mr Blair came amid reports two of the Prime Minister's most senior allies are making preparations for a possible referendum on the final terms of the deal.

Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, Mrs May's defacto deputy, has met Labour MPs to discuss a cross-party consensus on the idea of a new vote, according to the Sunday Times.

The newspaper also claimed that Mrs May's chief of staff, Gavin Barwell was supportive of the idea.

A particularly bruising week for the PM saw her appeals for the EU to be more flexible on backstop proposals for the Irish border to be largely rebuffed at a summit of European leaders.

The backstop, aimed at preventing the return of a hard border in Ireland, would see the UK remain under EU customs rules if no wider trade agreement had been struck by the end of an implementation period.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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