Saturday 18 August 2018

Three ministers 'meet anti-Brexit group over second referendum'

Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave Union and EU flags and hold up a placard mentioning Phillip Lee, a minister who resigned today after disagreeing with the government's handling of Brexit, opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave Union and EU flags and hold up a placard mentioning Phillip Lee, a minister who resigned today after disagreeing with the government's handling of Brexit, opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Gordon Rayner and Shona Murray

Three British ministers have held talks with an anti-Brexit campaign group that wants them to back a second EU referendum in defiance of the UK government, it was claimed last night.

It is understood that the Best For Britain group has held a series of talks with Remain-supporting ministers and MPs to encourage them to oppose Theresa May.

Best For Britain, which is funded by the billionaire financier George Soros, said it was "working tirelessly" to secure a second referendum, targeting ministers and Opposition MPs it believed were sympathetic to its cause.

Yesterday Phillip Lee, a justice minister who reportedly held talks with the group, became the first member of the government to resign over the Mrs May's Brexit policy.

Conservative sources said that four more junior ministers were considering following in Dr Lee's wake as part of a co-ordinated plot to scupper Mrs May's Brexit plans.

Sources close to Dr Lee said his resignation had been a "warning shot" to the government and that more departures would come if Mrs May had not made further concessions on her plans for a so-called "meaningful vote" and customs arrangements by the time two more Brexit Bills are debated next month.

Yesterday, on a day of drama and brinkmanship in parliament, Mrs May avoided defeat after a concession to Tory rebels over the meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal. Whips and ministers shuttled back and forth for hours during a debate over the EU Withdrawal Bill in a frantic attempt to reach a compromise with Remainers.

Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general who led the rebellion, claimed he had killed off the prospect of a "no deal" Brexit and suggested it was Dr Lee's resignation that triggered the climbdown, but the government said no such concession had been made.

Details of Best For Britain's attempts to thwart Brexit emerged in February, when it was reported that the group had plans to "pressure" MPs in 100 Leave-supporting constituencies.

The group claimed it had been in contact with Dr Lee before his resignation.

Dr Lee called for a second referendum in his resignation statement, and Best For Britain claimed it had been in contact with other ministers including Alistair Burt, the foreign office minister, Richard Harrington, the business minister, Shailesh Vara, the Northern Ireland minister and Rachel Maclean, a parliamentary private secretary to the home secretary.

Mr Harrington and Ms Maclean denied having meetings or contact with Best For Britain.

Eloise Todd, chief executive of Best for Britain, said: "We have been speaking both to government ministers and opposition MPs to make our case and lobby them on Brexit."

Mr Vara said: "I'm not thinking of resigning. I'm absolutely a solid Brexiteer and if there was a referendum now I would campaign to leave. I don't agree with their campaign, the people of Britain made their voice absolutely clear."

Mr Burt said that he had "absolutely no intention" of resigning over Brexit.

A spokesman for Ms MacLean said she had never spoken to Best for Britain or attended an event held by them, describing suggestions she could resign over Brexit as "utter rubbish".

Mr Harrington issued a "categoric" denial that he had ever met anyone from Best for Britain and said he would not resign.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Simon Coveney last night said there is a "huge amount of frustration" among EU negotiators "that more progress has not been made" on the Irish backstop.

Speaking in Munich, he welcomed political settlements in the House of Commons but warned "this can't be Britain just negotiating with itself; the real negotiation has to happen between the British negotiating team and the EU negotiation team."

Irish Independent

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