Union chiefs to meet Government for Brexit discussions

Trade union leaders are holding top-level Brexit talks with the Government as Theresa May seeks to keep her grip on the EU withdrawal agenda.

In an unusual move, union chiefs will attend Whitehall discussions on Thursday, which are expected to involve the Prime Minister.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, Len McCluskey of Unite, Dave Prentis of Unison and Tim Roache of the GMB, will all hold separate meetings with ministers.

The discussions are part of Mrs May’s bid to try and get widespread political backing in finding a Brexit agenda that would command a majority in the Commons after her plans were heavily rejected by MPs.

The Government move comes as there appeared to be growing support in Labour ranks for a parliamentary bid by former minister Yvette Cooper to extend Article 50, which would keep the UK in the EU longer, unless a deal is reached by the end of February.

Leading Brexiteers have attacked such initiatives, saying they would take control of events from the Government.

In another sign of opposition to the Prime Minister’s stance, 19 ministers, including Cabinet members, have been meeting to discuss preventing a no-deal Brexit, according to the Daily Telegraph.

One member of the ministerial group dubbed it the “hair-shirt club”, the newspaper reported.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn branding the PM’s talks initiative a “stunt”, a senior spokesman said the Labour leader’s request for the party’s MPs to boycott discussions with Mrs May did not extend to union leaders.

The Labour spokesman said: “As Jeremy set out last week, he is more than ready to engage in talks with the Prime Minister on the basis that no-deal is taken off the table.

“I think that has been vindicated by subsequent events.

“Unless she makes clear that she is prepared to move and compromise and accept the reality of the position, then she is simply continuing to try to run down the clock and prevent any solution to this crisis.

“Of course it is absolutely right for union leaders to represent their members and to engage with the Government on issues that affect their members.

“There must be a majority in Parliament for any deal, including a mechanism to rule out no-deal.

“That is going to take place among the political parties.”

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has said that this is a process of engagement across the House of Commons but also with other interested sectors.

“She has spoken to business leaders and she will be talking with union leaders.

“Issues I expect to be discussed will be around employment rights, environmental standards and those sorts of things.”

Unions have been warning of the impact on jobs of a no-deal Brexit and have been pressing for assurances about employment rights after the UK leaves the EU.

Some have also argued in favour of a second referendum.

Nigel Farage (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Nigel Farage (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

On the issue of a new national poll on EU withdrawal, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said any referendum should have just two options.

He told ITV’s Peston: “I think there should definitely be Remain.

“And there should be a genuine Leave option.

“I think it would be better if it was a binary choice.”

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage insisted Mrs May’s withdrawal plans should be opposed, even if that risked a new referendum.

He told ITV’s Peston: “Personally my view at the moment is better to vote down this dreadful deal and take the risk of a second referendum.”

Ms Cooper’s Article 50 bid, which has cross-party backing including from Conservative Nick Boles, is one of a number of amendments that could be voted on next Tuesday if selected by Commons Speaker John Bercow.