Labour ‘not in any way backing second referendum with amendment’

Labour has distanced itself from backing a second referendum after tabling an amendment allowing MPs to vote on ways to end the “Brexit deadlock”.

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said the amendment had been carefully written and did not tie the party into backing a new vote “in any way”.

It came as Theresa May was due to hold her weekly Cabinet meeting to discuss her next moves, with backbenchers also planning various amendments designed to make various changes on Tuesday.

Labour’s amendment calls for a vote on Labour’s plan for a customs union with the EU, and whether to legislate “to hold a public vote on a deal or a proposition” that is supported by a Commons majority.

But Mrs Long Bailey reiterated to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the party was “prioritising” its own Brexit deal.

She said: “The amendment is very specifically worded to allow for the debate of the options.

“It is not stating that the party supports a second referendum in any way and indeed if it was passed, the amendment, and it went to a vote on the specific issues, then that would be a decision for the party to take at the time.”

However, Mrs Long Bailey also described a backbench amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper designed to stop a no-deal Brexit as “fantastic”, suggesting Labour could support it.

The move came as it was understood that Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd had urged Downing Street to allow Tory MPs a free vote on moves aimed at preventing a no deal, amid fears that dozens of ministers could otherwise resign.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported that Tory HQ has been effectively put on a snap general election “war footing” due to the Brexit situation in Parliament.

Despite Mrs May’s claim that a second referendum could “damage social cohesion”, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the option should be considered.

He said: “Our amendment will allow MPs to vote on options to end this Brexit deadlock and prevent the chaos of a no deal.

“It is time for Labour’s alternative plan to take centre stage, while keeping all options on the table, including the option of a public vote.”

In a break from usual parliamentary rules, MPs will be able to amend the so-called “neutral motion” tabled by the Prime Minister on Brexit, with votes due to take place on amendments chosen by Speaker John Bercow on January 29.

A cross-party group of MPs, including Ms Cooper and Tory former minister Nick Boles, is seeking to give time for a Bill to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.

Labour’s Hilary Benn has tabled an amendment to the Government motion calling for a range of indicative votes on various Brexit options.

Labour MPs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Labour MPs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He tweeted: “Just tabled an amendment for next week’s Brexit debate calling for the House of Commons to hold a series of indicative votes on a way forward.”

And Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve is looking to allow a motion by a minority of 300 MPs – from at least five parties and including 10 Tories – to be debated in order to allow for indicative votes on where to go next.

In a sign of Labour divisions on the issue of a second Brexit referendum, shadow housing minister Melanie Onn said she could not support such a move.

However, Chuka Umunna, a prominent supporter of a People’s Vote, called for a firmer stance.

Meanwhile, Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl poured cold water on a suggestion by her Polish counterpart that the Irish border backstop, a key stumbling block in the Brexit deal process, could be time-limited.

Jacek Czaputowicz said on Monday that it could be set at five years to allow a deal to pass the UK Parliament.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

But Ms Kneissl told Today her Irish counterpart Simon Coveney had made it clear “Ireland belongs to the 27” at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels on Monday and “anything that was negotiated by commissioner Michel Barnier was part of the position that Ireland was part of”.

She added: “We were all taken by surprise when the Polish minister made his statement.

“We have had cohesion and we wish to continue having cohesion on the EU27 position, so the statement by our Polish colleague came as a surprise, but I don’t believe that it will cause some sort of breakthrough, certainly not because if we start having all kinds of bilateral suggestions it doesn’t lead us anywhere.”

She also dampened hopes of an extension to Article 50 to give the UK more time to negotiate, saying: “Where is the added value of the new British suggestion?”

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay also suggested that European politicians might not all support an extension to Article 50 if the UK asked for one.

He told Today there were “practical issues” over the European Parliament elections in May, adding: “From the EU point of view, they have been very clear that they don’t want an extension with no purpose and so we come back to the issue as to what it is MPs are for and just what they are against.”

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