Monday 27 January 2020

Tories secretly plot with Labour to force May into softer Brexit

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds the first cabinet meeting following the general election at No 10 Downing Street in London. Photo: Leon Neal
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds the first cabinet meeting following the general election at No 10 Downing Street in London. Photo: Leon Neal

Kate McCann

Senior Tory cabinet ministers are engaged in secret talks with Labour MPs to secure cross-party backing for a soft Brexit, it has emerged.

Some of the most senior members of Theresa May's team have been plotting how to force the prime minister to make concessions on immigration, the customs union and the single market.

There have also been discussions of a cross-party Brexit Commission to agree common ground between the parties and ensure an orderly withdrawal from the EU.

Labour is expected to use the talks as leverage to demand an end to the public sector pay freeze among a series of concessions in next week's Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament.

Mrs May is understood to have been "aware" of the plot for several days but so far has done nothing to stop it.

Ruth Davidson, the increasingly influential leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told Mrs May in a meeting yesterday that she must "reach out" to other parties and "work with others on Brexit". She added that there should be "changes in the offer on Brexit as we go forward" - a direct challenge to the prime minister's authority.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove says it is vital that the government can "achieve a deal that can command the widest possible support".

Last night Mrs May was cheered at the first meeting of backbench Tory MPs since losing her majority as she told them: "I got us into this mess and I'll get us out of it."

In other developments:

÷ Senior Conservatives suggested Mrs May will be allowed to continue as prime minister until 2019.

÷ The start of Brexit talks was delayed after the EU said the election result had caused uncertainty in Brussels.

÷ Downing Street announced that the Queen's Speech could be delayed by the need to reach an agreement with the DUP about what will be in it.

÷ Mrs May will fly to Paris tonight to meet French president Emmanuel Macron to discuss counter-terrorism and Brexit.

÷ Labour's policy on Brexit descended into chaos as two of Jeremy Corbyn's most senior frontbenchers contradicted the Labour leader.

Brexit will dominate whatever remains of Mrs May's premiership, and the Conservatives behind the talks with Labour MPs believe the prime minister will have no choice but to accept their demands in order to ensure her Brexit plans are not blocked by Parliament.

MPs who favour a soft Brexit or oppose it altogether, largely comprising those who backed Remain in the EU referendum, outnumber hard Brexiteers in the House of Commons.

The two opposing sides forged alliances when they campaigned side by side in the EU referendum, and last night senior Conservative and Labour sources confirmed that talks were ongoing and look set to intensify over the coming weeks as negotiations with EU leaders begin.

One senior Tory source said the election had made clear that the Conservatives were "no longer in control of the Brexit process" and added that the party must listen to "all sides".

Conservative MPs fear that losing a key vote on Brexit would weaken Mrs May's position so much that she could be forced to stand aside, triggering a leadership contest or worse - a second election.

Senior Labour sources said conversations had taken place to allow back-channels between the two parties to negotiate amendments to Brexit Bills which would soften the exit.

If there is no agreement to set up a Brexit commission, one alternative would be for Labour backbenchers to table amendments, with agreement from pro-Remain Conservatives, which would be easier for Tory MPs to support than if they came from Jeremy Corbyn's own team.

The shadow cabinet would then "fall in behind" the same amendment, the source said, making it look like the change had not been won by Mr Corbyn himself.

The sources added that Labour would urge the Prime Minister to change her tone and strategy on Brexit to focus on jobs and the economy rather than curbing immigration.

Irish Independent

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