Theresa May’s final attempt to patch together a parliamentary majority for Brexit appears to have backfired after her 10-point “new deal” was rejected by MPs from across the political spectrum.
In a speech at the headquarters of consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers in London on Tuesday, the prime minister laid out a series of promises that will be included in the 100-page withdrawal agreement bill (Wab) when it is published later this week – including an offer of a binding vote on a referendum if the deal passes.
But, after a stormy cabinet meeting in which a more generous proposed offer on a second referendum was met with the threat of revolt, MPs on both sides of the Brexit divide said that the proposals were hollow. Within hours, more than 20 Conservatives who backed the deal last time rejected it.
May had implored MPs in her own party and beyond to take a fresh look at what she called a “serious offer”. And with her party facing defeat by Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in Thursday’s European election, she warned that extending the Brexit deadlock “risks opening the door to a nightmare future of permanently polarised politics”.
“Look around the world and consider the health of liberal democratic politics, and look across the United Kingdom and consider the impact of failing to deliver on the clear instruction of the British people in a lawful referendum,” she said.
May sought to woo remainers by promising that if MPs support the deal at its second reading in early June, she will offer them a vote on a referendum as the legislation passes through parliament – and be bound by the result.
“I do not believe this is a route that we should take, because I think we should be implementing the result of the first referendum, not asking the British people to vote in a second one,’ she said. “But I recognise the genuine and sincere strength of feeling across the House on this important issue.”
1 The government will seek to conclude alternative arrangements to replace the backstop by December 2020.
2 Should the backstop come into force, the government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland.
3 The negotiating objectives and final treaties for our future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs.
4 A new workers’ rights bill that guarantees workers’ rights will be no less favourable than in the EU.
5 No change in the level of environmental protection.
6 The UK will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible while outside the single market and ending free movement.
7 We will keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at border protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains.
8 The government will bring forward a customs compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock.
9 There will be a vote for MPs on whether the deal should be subject to a referendum.
10 There will be a legal duty to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect this new deal.
MPs would also be given the opportunity to vote on alternative customs proposals, including the compromise offer May made to Labour during the ill-fated six-week negotiations of a temporary customs union on goods. If Labour won the next general election, they could upgrade it to a permanent arrangement.
May also made a series of other pledges, including a separate bill to ensure workers’ rights do not fall behind EU levels; a guarantee that there will be, “no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU”; and a promise that parliament will be consulted on the next stage of Brexit negotiations.
MPs across the House of Commons were unpersuaded by May’s new proposals. By Tuesday evening not a single MP who opposed the deal last time had come out to support it.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “We won’t back a repackaged version of the same old deal – and it’s clear that this weak and disintegrating government is unable deliver on its own commitments.”
The referendum pledge sparked a backlash almost immediately, with several Tories who have supported her in the past, including Harlow MP Robert Halfon, saying they could not back a bill that appeared to open the door to reversing the 2016 vote.
“If Theresa May is now supporting a second referendum, it makes it very hard for me to support the latest Wab when it comes to the House of Commons,” he said. “This is a betrayal of the 2016 referendum and a betrayal of everything she has been saying since she became prime minister.”
He was one of at least 20 Conservative MPs who supported her deal in March, who said they could not back the new package – putting her on course for an even heavier defeat than the 58 majority that defeated her deal at the last attempt.
Members of the backbench European Research Group, some of whom switched sides to support the prime minister in March, were united in opposition. “Theresa May has done a tremendous job of healing the wounds and reuniting Tory MPs split on Brexit,” said a ERG source.
The Democratic Unionist party also dismissed the concessions as a “hodge podge”.
Supporters of a people’s vote meanwhile argued that the mere promise of a vote on a referendum, which Downing Street declined to say how it would whip, would not be enough to secure their support.
Peter Kyle, the Labour MP who was one of the architects of the Kyle-Wilson amendment calling for a confirmatory referendum, said: “The PM owns this mess, not MPs like me that have tried to offer ways out. If she attaches a confirmatory ballot to the bill I will support it. What she has offered falls way short.
“I won’t vote for something affecting future generations simply to get through a difficult week.”
Nicola Sturgeon, who has been a vocal advocate for a second referendum, said her 35 Scottish Nationalist party MPs would not support the legislation either. “Theresa May said that MPs who vote against the bill will be voting to stop Brexit. That is exactly what SNP MPs will do because Scotland did not vote for Brexit.”
May was willing to make a more generous offer to referendum campaigners, but failed to win the backing of her cabinet in a confrontational three-hour meeting on Tuesday morning, several cabinet sources said.
They described how May’s authority had completely ebbed away at the meeting, where pro-Brexit ministers were in revolt over the idea that she was prepared to put a second referendum and customs union on the face of the withdrawal bill.
This would have put them forward for a vote as government amendments, which one cabinet source said was an idea branded “completely unacceptable” by Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and Geoffrey Cox. The cabinet also rejected the idea of a free vote on the second referendum.
One cabinet source from soft Brexit wing of the party said: “It felt like Grayling was the only one on the verge of resignation but it was complete pushback from the cabinet. There was a whole row over what is called the face of the bill.
“Basically if you put something on the face of a bill it is automatically accepted as an amendment adopted into the bill – five things were proposed to go on the face of the bill and all of them were talked down, including the second referendum and customs union. If she’d put it on the face of the bill, it would have been part of the legislation and therefore put forward by the government. The PM wanted to compromise a lot more and was just unable to.”