Rebel Conservatives and independent MPs have expressed deep scepticism after an invite from Jeremy Corbyn to discuss ways to stop a no-deal Brexit, making it explicit that their preference was to stop it by legislation, not through a Labour-led vote of no confidence.
The former Conservative MP Nick Boles demanded the Labour leader rule out backing a general election that could lead to the UK leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October.
In a letter that laid out plans for rebel Conservatives to stop no deal, Boles turned down Corbyn’s offer of a meeting, saying the Labour leader had to commit to alternative routes to stopping the UK crashing out that went beyond him offering to steward a caretaker government.
The former Tory MP Anna Soubry said she would attend the meeting scheduled for next week with other party leaders but also underlined that she would tell Corbyn that MPs must pursue legislative routes to stop no deal, rather than an immediate confidence vote.
Dominic Grieve, one of the key Conservative MPs behind efforts to stop no deal, said he could not attend at the time set by Corbyn but said it was “a matter of public record that I am open to meeting with him at a mutually convenient time”.
Boles and Soubry both said the Labour leadership should focus on backing the action in parliament to legislate against no deal, which cross-party MPs have worked on over the summer.
It is understood that rebel Conservatives and others working cross-party to stop no deal believe they already have the necessary backchannels to the Labour leadership to pass legislation to stop no deal, and would prefer the parliamentary efforts were led by a backbencher in order to maximise its chance of success.
Previous efforts have been led by MPs including Labour’s Yvette Cooper or Margaret Beckett, as well as by Boles and Grieve.
“We are already in discussions with senior figures in Labour who are familiar with our thinking about how to stop no deal and involved in plans for legislation,” one source said.
In his letter to Corbyn, Boles said the plan would involve “seizing control of the order paper and passing an act of parliament that compels the prime minister to secure the agreement of the EU council to a further extension to article 50” – similar to action taken by Boles, Cooper and the Conservative Oliver Letwin earlier this year.
Boles, who quit the Conservative party in protest at the reticence of some MPs to find a solution to the Brexit impasse, said Corbyn had to rule out facilitating an election before an article 50 extension had been secured.
He said he would not support a vote of no confidence while the Boris Johnson government continued to pursue a Brexit deal nor support any government in which Corbyn was prime minister.
Liberal Democrats: Their first choice would be legislation to extend article 50 then call a second referendum. If this did not work the party would support the no-confidence motion, but rather than installing Corbyn, the Lib Dems would seek a cross-party government led by a backbench grandee, such as Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman. It is not clear if the party would try to block a temporary Corbyn government.
SNP: The Scottish National party supports a no-confidence motion. They have said they will talk to Corbyn about his plan, despite their differences over Brexit. The party’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has criticised Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson's stance.
Plaid Cymru: Liz Saville Roberts, Westminster leader for the party, has indicated she could back the Corbyn plan, but would prefer an immediate second referendum rather than general election.
Independent Group for Change/Independents: The group formerly known as the TIGers, now split and reduced in number after two joined the Liberal Democrats, seem wary of the Corbyn plan, with some MPs saying they could not support him.
Greens: Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s sole MP has taken a similar view to Saville Roberts, and has also appealed to Swinson to reconsider backing a temporary Corbyn-led government.
Rebel Tories: Conservative party MP Guto Bebb has said that even a Corbyn government would be preferable to no deal. But it seems hard to see many other Tories following him.
Former Labour independents: Ian Austin, a long-time Corbyn foe, has already ruled out supporting his plan for a temporary government, and it is hard to see MPs such as Frank Field, John Woodcock, and others, doing so either.
Peter Walker Political correspondent
Boles said he also needed guarantees from Corbyn that he would oppose efforts from Downing Street to prorogue parliament and call an early general election on 1 November, in order to stop such a bill delaying the UK’s exit from receiving royal assent.
“It is therefore essential that you declare publicly that you will not facilitate an election before an extension of article 50 has been secured and a no-deal Brexit has been averted,” he wrote.
“Until you do so, people will continue to doubt the sincerity of your declared opposition to a no-deal Brexit and your readiness to put the interests of the country before the interests of your party and your personal ambitions.”
Soubry said she felt “very, very strongly that a vote of no confidence is a genuine distraction” and that Conservative rebels would only back one when it became clear Johnson was no longer pursuing a Brexit deal in any form.
“In September we have to stop a no-deal Brexit by way of legislation,” Soubry said. “We must have in law that we could not leave the European Union without a deal and that would mean that we have an extension.”
Corbyn has invited Scottish National party, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Conservative and independent MPs to visit his office next Tuesday, urging them to talk about “all tactics available to prevent no deal”.
The Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, who was invited to the meeting, has also said she will not attend – and hinted she may be prepared to accept Johnson’s position, despite having sponsored amendments that blocked no deal earlier this year.
At 11pm UK time on 31 October the UK would, by default, become a “third country” in terms of relations with the EU, with no post-Brexit plan in place, and no transition period. The UK would no longer be paying into the EU budget, nor would it hand over the £39bn divorce payment.
The UK would drop out of countless arrangements, pacts and treaties, covering everything from tariffs to the movement of people, foodstuffs, other goods and data, to numerous specific deals on things such as aviation, and policing and security. Without an overall withdrawal agreement each element would need to be agreed. In the immediate aftermath, without a deal the UK would trade with the EU on the default terms of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including tariffs on agricultural goods.
The UK government has already indicated that it will set low or no tariffs on goods coming into the country. This would lower the price of imports – making it harder for British manufacturers to compete with foreign goods. If the UK sets the tariffs to zero on goods coming in from the EU, under WTO ‘most favoured nation’ rules it must also offer the same zero tariffs to other countries.
WTO rules only cover goods – they do not apply to financial services, a significant part of the UK’s economy. Trading under WTO rules will also require border checks, which could cause delays at ports, and a severe challenge to the peace process in Ireland without alternative arrangements in place to avoid a hard border.
Some no-deal supporters have claimed that the UK can use article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) to force the EU to accept a period of up to ten years where there are no tariffs while a free trade agreement (FTA) is negotiated. However, the UK cannot invoke article 24 unilaterally – the EU would have to agree to it. In previous cases where the article has been used, the two sides had a deal in place, and it has never been used to replicate something of the scale and complexity of the EU and the UK’s trading relationship.
The director general of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, has told Prospect magazine that "in simple factual terms in this scenario, you could expect to see the application of tariffs between the UK and EU where currently there are none".
Until some agreements are in place, a no-deal scenario will place extra overheads on UK businesses – eg the current government advice is that all drivers, including lorries and commercial vehicles, will require extra documentation to be able to drive in Europe after 31 October if there is no deal. Those arguing for a ‘managed’ no deal envisage that a range of smaller, sector-by-sector, bilateral agreements could be quickly put into place as mutual self-interest between the UK and EU to avoid introducing or to rapidly remove this kind of bureaucracy.
In a video message, Spelman said she would not support any efforts to remove Johnson as prime minister and backed his pursuit of a Brexit deal. “I do not support Jeremy Corbyn’s initiative and I would not support a government led by him,” she said.
“The position taken by Boris Johnson – that we will be leaving the EU on 31 October but he would prefer we did so with a deal – is one I entirely support and I wish Boris Johnson every success in those negotiations.
“However, [if] the reality is that he is not able to conclude those negotiations, we will be leaving without a deal because that is what the law states. I reassert again that I fully support Boris Johnson as our prime minister and I would not in any circumstances bring down a Conservative government led by him.”
Corbyn’s invitation has been accepted by opposition party leaders from the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens but sources said he was yet to receive a response from two other Tories invited to the meeting – Letwin and another Conservative MP Guto Bebb, who had signalled he could be prepared to back a Corbyn government as a last resort to prevent no deal. .