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Brexit

UK government denies making plans for second Brexit referendum

  • Denial came after PM Theresa May attacked Labour predecessor Tony Blair for advocating a second vote
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 8:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 8:58pm

Theresa May will summon European Union ambassadors to 10 Downing Street this week as she continues to seek reassurances over the Irish backstop, with the government vehemently denying drawing up contingency plans for a second referendum.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds insisted on Sunday: “Government policy couldn’t be clearer. We are here to act on the will of the people clearly expressed in the referendum.

“A second referendum would be divisive. We had the people’s vote, we had the referendum, and now we’ve got to get on with implementing it. Any idea that having a second referendum now would break through an impasse is wrong. It might postpone the impasse, but then it would extend it,” he said.

May attacked former Labour prime minister Tony Blair this weekend for advocating a second vote, saying: “There are too many people who want to subvert the process for their own political interests – rather than acting in the national interest.

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“For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.”

The prime minister appears determined to pursue her strategy of seeking legal guarantees on the backstop and then putting her deal to MPs after Christmas. She is sending the government’s most senior legal officer, Jonathan Jones, to Brussels this week.

The prime minister told MPs in a dramatic meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers on Wednesday, soon before they voted in the no-confidence ballot that failed to unseat her, that she would secure legally binding assurances, and was battling to win over the DUP.

But cabinet ministers are lining up behind alternative plans, with, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt expected to launch proposals for a “managed no deal”, also favoured by the leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, later this week.

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The work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, broke cover in the Daily Mail on Saturday, calling for her colleagues to reach out to MPs in other parties to avoid Brexit “getting stuck”.

“We need to try something different. Something that people do in the real world all the time, but which seems so alien in our political culture: to engage with others and be willing to forge a consensus,” she said, in an article widely regarded as a coded plea to shift to a softer Brexit.

Hinds told Sophy Ridge on Sky News that different groups of MPs were advocating a series of different options, but should go home from Westminster for Christmas and reflect on how they would deliver the result of the 2016 referendum.

“There are about half a dozen different options going around, and all of them has their strong supporters, but none of them has a majority in favour, whether you’re talking about Norway, or Canada, or second referendum, leaving without a deal or whatever it may be.”

Asked whether a second referendum had been discussed in cabinet, he said no.

May’s Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell, sent a series of tweets on Sunday morning denying reports in two Sunday papers that he had told colleagues a fresh referendum was the only way through the Brexit crisis.

In response to the Harlow MP, Robert Halfon, who said calling another referendum would be a “complete betrayal” of the prime minister’s promise to respect the 2016 vote, Barwell agreed, saying it would “further divide the country when we should be trying to bring people back together”.

Sources close to David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, also strongly denied he signalled in a meeting with Labour MPs last week that Downing Street was interested in another referendum, insisting he was in “listening mode”.

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The idea of a referendum as a way out of the parliamentary impasse has been creeping up the agenda at Westminster for months, pushed by a cross-party alliance of pro-remain MPs.

But it appeared significantly more likely last week after the prime minister pulled a vote on her deal, fearing a crushing defeat, and then returned from Brussels on Friday without the legally binding assurances on the backstop she had hoped for.