Ditch Meaningful Vote And Back Second Brexit Referendum, Tony Blair Tells Theresa May

Rachel Wearmouth
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair 

Theresa May should ditch the seemingly-doomed parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal and immediately switch to backing a second referendum, Tony Blair has said. 

The former prime minister said a re-run should include just two options: remain “with a renewed offer from Europe” on immigration and a Canada-style hard Brexit.  

The Labour grandee said May’s only route out of Brexit gridlock was to “go back to the people” as a Commons compromise was becoming increasingly impossible. 

It comes as the deal the government has negotiated with the EU faces a resounding defeat, with as many as 100 MPs – from Labour, the SNP and May’s own backbenches – set to reject it in a showdown on Tuesday. 

Blair went on: “Personally I don’t see what the point is of plunging along and being defeated very heavily.

“The real issue is, is she prepared to work to see what compromise has parliamentary approval. My belief is once that process goes through is that she will find there isn’t one. 

“If there isn’t one, that’s when my solution becomes really important.” 

The PM is facing defeat in the Commons on Tuesday

It comes as senior Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said he would welcome the December 11 crunch vote being deferred if no solution could be found to differences within the party over the backstop.

He told the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think the most important thing is to have clarity about how we might remove ourselves from a backstop...if we were to enter into one in the future.

“It’s having the answer to that question of substance that is most important, not the timing, so if that question can be answered in the course of the next few days then all well and good. If it can’t then I certainly would welcome the vote being deferred until such time as we can answer that question.”

Speaking to the parliamentary press gallery in Westminster on Thursday, Blair said a soft Brexit which would see the UK join separate trading coalitions which accept many EU rules, including free movement, would face savage attack from hardline Brexiteers.  

“I hear talk of Norway,” he said. “Norway’s not going to work. It’s going to be subject to an even greater degree of attack from people who voted Brexit.” 

May must “find a way that squares that circle” between the 52% who backed Brexit and the 48% who threw their weight behind Remain at the 2016 referendum. 

“It’s very hard to look at that Brexit vote and say that they mandated Norway,” he said, shooting down similar soft Brexit proposals put forward by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock.

Labour's Hilary Benn

 

It comes as senior Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said he would welcome the December 11 crunch vote being deferred if no solution could be found to differences within the party over the backstop.

He told the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think the most important thing is to have clarity about how we might remove ourselves from a backstop...if we were to enter into one in the future.

“It’s having the answer to that question of substance that is most important, not the timing, so if that question can be answered in the course of the next few days then all well and good. If it can’t then I certainly would welcome the vote being deferred until such time as we can answer that question.”

Speaking at an event in Westminster on Thursday, Blair said a soft Brexit which would see the UK join separate trading coalitions which accept many EU rules, including free movement, would face savage attack from hardline Brexiteers.  

“I hear talk of Norway,” he said. “Norway’s not going to work. It’s going to be subject to an even greater degree of attack from people who voted Brexit.” 

May must “find a way that squares that circle” between the 52% who backed Brexit and the 48% who threw their weight behind Remain at the 2016 referendum. 

“It’s very hard to look at that Brexit vote and say that they mandated Norway,” he said, shooting down similar soft Brexit proposals put forward by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock.

     

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“I think it is hard to say, though easier to say, that they mandated Canada,” he added, referring to a free trade deal, which would see a hard border erected in Northern Ireland. 

But the former PM, who has been scathing about his own party’s failure to oppose Brexit, said logic dictates a second public vote is her only option. 

He said in recent months there had been “as much leadership on the backbenches as there had been on the front” singling out key battles on Brexit legislation detail from Tory Dominic Grieve and Labour MP Hilary Benn. 

Benn has attempted to amend May’s withdrawal plans so that no-deal is ruled out, while Grieve has won backing for MPs to effectively direct the government’s Brexit deal should the first draft be defeated. 

May could choose to push the UK into a “forever and a day” transition period, Blair said, but “in this case, there is no executive third way” which would satisfy both extremes of the argument.  

“If that is a case you may find that the only way forward is going back to the people,” he added. 

Blair repeated his claim to reporters that Brexit will be economically damaging – something backed up by the government’s own assessment and that of the Bank of England – and said May should have been more transparent about trade-offs when she set out to negotiate with Brussels. 

He added: “In my view what goes on the ballot is: remain, I hope, with a renewed offer from Europe around issues on immigration and leave, which should be the leave of what I call proper Brexiteers want.”

Blair, who won three general election victories as PM, said a second referendum should settle the argument, 30 months after the leave vote. 

He said: “Some people on my side ‘well they might just vote leave again’ and my answers is if they do, they do. You’ve got clarity.” 

Asked to unpick May’s impossible dilemma, whereby the public have backed Brexit but MPs remain divided, Blair concluded: “Honestly, this is the moment to realise that you have to work out whether it is possible to reach a compromise among the MPs and if it isn’t you exclude the impossible, go back to the improbable.”

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