May allies distance themselves from new referendum reports

Key allies of Theresa May have distanced themselves from reports they are involved in planning for a new Brexit referendum.

The Prime Minister’s defacto deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, and Mrs May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, indicated they are not in favour of a new EU withdrawal vote.

The move followed reports that Mr Lidington held talks with Labour MPs last week aimed at getting cross-party consensus for a new referendum.

In response, Mr Lidington tweeted a link to last week’s Hansard record of Parliamentary proceedings, where he set out how a second vote was a possibility, but could be “divisive not decisive”.

Mr Barwell tweeted: “Happy to confirm I am *not* planning a 2nd referendum with political opponents (or anyone else to anticipate the next question)”

Education Secretary Damian Hinds insisted Cabinet has not discussed a second EU referendum.

Asked if Cabinet had talked about the issue, Mr Hinds told Sky News: “No. Government policy couldn’t be clearer. We are here to act on the will of the British people clearly expressed in the referendum.”

As Cabinet members tried to dampen talk of a fresh Brexit poll, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox indicated he could support a free vote for MPs on Brexit options.

Asked about a free vote, Dr Fox told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show: “That’s not something we have considered.

“I have to say, personally, I wouldn’t have a huge problem with Parliament as a whole having a say on what the options were.”

Dr Fox signalled he thought there could be EU movement in the new year regarding anxieties Brexiteers have that Britain could be “trapped” in the Northern Ireland backstop.

He said: “It’s very clear that the EU understand what the problem is. And it’s a question now, without unpicking the whole of the Withdrawal Agreement, can we find a mechanism of operating the backstop in a way that actually removes those anxieties.

“It will happen over Christmas. It is not going to happen this week. It is not going to be quick.

“It will happen sometime in the new year.”

The backstop, intended to prevent the return of hard border in Ireland, would keep the UK obeying EU customs rules if a wider trade deal had not been agreed by the end of a transition period.

And Labour made it clear it will not bring a confidence motion against the Government until after a meaningful vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal is held.

Shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne, who is also the party’s election co-ordinator, told the BBC: “The main thing we want next week is to have that meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement… we want that before Christmas.

“Parliament has to decide whether or not it supports the Prime Minister’s deal and fundamentally until we secure that meaningful vote from the Parliament we can’t move to the next stage.

“We think that’s the next logical step because we want to make sure Parliament has its say on what’s a catastrophically bad deal for this country and then we can move on beyond that.”

Meanwhile, Labour former prime minister Tony Blair labelled Mrs May “irresponsible” after she accused him of “undermining” her Brexit negotiations.

Denying the PM’s claim that his call for a second referendum was an “insult to the office he once held”, Mr Blair said he was speaking out in the national interest and in the interests of democracy.

He said: “Far from being anti-democratic it would be the opposite, as indeed many senior figures in her party from past and present have been saying.

“What is irresponsible, however, is to try to steamroller MPs into accepting a deal they genuinely think is a bad one with the threat that if they do not fall into line, the Government will have the country crash out without a deal.”

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