A backbench Bill designed to stop the UK crashing out of the EU next week has created the danger of an “accidental no-deal Brexit”, ministers have warned.
The Bill tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper passed by a single vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening and is expected to go through the Lords in a single day today.
But Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay – in a warning backed up by Downing Street – told MPs that the measure could backfire if the Commons rejects any Brexit delay offered by EU leaders at a summit next Wednesday, as there would be no time to renegotiate it before the deadline for departure on Friday.
The warning came as Government and Labour negotiating teams were locked in intensive talks to seek the consensus Brexit position needed to secure an extension of any kind at the April 10 Brussels summit.
Arriving for the talks, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the idea of a “confirmatory” referendum would be discussed.
“We have been discussing Labour’s alternative plan and issues such as confirmatory votes,” he told reporters.
In remarks likely to infuriate Tory Brexiteers, Chancellor Philip Hammond on Wednesday night described a referendum as a “perfectly credible proposal”, though he stressed that he opposed it.
Mr Hammond told ITV’s Peston: “When you enter into a negotiation like this to find a compromise way forward, both parties have to give something up. There is going to be pain on both sides.”
— Peston (@itvpeston) April 3, 2019
There were signs of divisions on the Labour side over whether to demand a confirmatory public vote as part of any consensus plan.
Deputy leader Tom Watson said members “would not forgive us” if it was not included, while chairman Ian Lavery reportedly warned shadow cabinet it could split the party.
Meanwhile, both Mr Hammond and Health Secretary Matt Hancock signalled that Tories could be prepared to compromise on a customs union.
“I would much prefer the Prime Minister’s deal to a customs union, to be frank,” Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I want to deliver Brexit. I have spoken about the problems of a customs union and I don’t think it’s as good for the country. But I also want to deliver Brexit.”
With time running out before Theresa May must inform European Council president Donald Tusk of the UK’s proposal, Downing Street appeared to indicate that it may not be necessary for MPs to approve any consensus deal ahead of the summit.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said the important thing was to provide the leaders of the other 27 EU states with “clarity” on the way forward, in order for them to feel able to offer a further extension to the Brexit process, which is currently due to end on April 12.
The spokesman said talks involving Mr Barclay, Mrs May’s effective deputy David Lidington and Chief Whip Julian Smith on the Government side and Sir Kier, shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey and opposition chief whip Nick Brown from Labour, were proceeding with “urgency”.
But there was little sign of a conclusion in time to table a motion for Commons debate on Monday by the Thursday evening deadline, leaving only Tuesday next week – the eve of the summit – for a possible vote.
Mrs May will be expected to spell out the UK’s plans in a letter to Mr Tusk in sufficient time for the other 27 leaders to consider them before they gather in Brussels on Wednesday evening.
Asked whether the Commons vote must take place before Mrs May puts pen to paper, the spokesman said: “What we are obviously working towards is being in a position to set out clarity to the European Council that there is a clear path in Parliament going forward which will allow the UK to leave with a deal and to ratify that deal as soon as possible.”
The spokesman highlighted warnings from Mr Barclay over the possible unintended consequences of the Cooper Bill.
The Brexit Secretary told MPs the legislation could “increase the risk of an accidental no-deal”, as it requires MPs to agree any Brexit extension the day after it is proposed by the European Council, giving no time for the Government to renegotiate the date if it is rejected.
Mr Barclay said this was not the intention of Ms Cooper, but was “a possible outcome”.
Mrs May’s spokesman told a Westminster media briefing the measure would deny the PM the royal prerogative power to conclude a deal with fellow leaders in Brussels without having to refer it back to MPs.
“On Wednesday next week, the European Council could propose an extension of an alternative length to that put forward by Parliament, and under the Bill the Prime Minister would have to return on Thursday April 11 to put that proposal to the House,” he said.
“By April 11, the European Council will have concluded and the leaders will have returned to their member states. In the words of the Secretary of State the Bill could increase the risk of an accidental no-deal exit.”
The spokesman added: “The Bill is going to go through the House of Lords today. I’m sure the House of Lords will want to look at the issues that the Secretary of State has raised.”
However, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said passage of the Bill would make the chances of the UK crashing out “very unlikely”.
Anger among Tory Brexiteers was increasing, with European Research Group deputy chairman Steve Baker telling Peston the leadership of the Conservative Party was “out of step with members and, I think, the country”.
He said a majority of Tory MPs would not accept a customs union and Mrs May would effectively be making Mr Corbyn deputy prime minister.
“If we find a majority of Conservative MPs voting against the policy, it’s not us who will be moving on,” he warned.
Former whip Michael Fabricant questioned whether the Chancellor had “gone rogue”.