Backbench Labour MPs have issued a warning to Jeremy Corbyn not to include a second Brexit referendum in any compromise deal thrashed out with Theresa May.
Negotiating teams from the Government and Labour sides were locked in intensive talks on Thursday to seek a consensus Brexit position ahead of a crunch summit in Brussels on April 10.
Arriving for talks in Whitehall, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer confirmed that a “confirmatory” referendum was among the ideas on the table for discussion.
And Chancellor Philip Hammond fuelled speculation that the Government may be preparing to accept a public vote as part of the price for securing a deal that can get through the House of Commons, describing a referendum a “perfectly credible proposal” in a interview on ITV1’s Peston.
But 25 Labour MPs have written a joint letter to Mr Corbyn warning that a second public vote would “divide the country further and add uncertainty for business”.
They warned: “A second referendum would be exploited by the far right, damage the trust of many core Labour voters and reduce our chances of winning a general election,” they warned.
Signatories included veteran backbenchers Sir Kevin Barron, Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell, former minister Caroline Flint and MPs for Leave-voting areas of the North and Midlands including Gloria De Piero, Sarah Champion and Gareth Snell.
They said the policy adopted at Labour’s autumn conference made clear there was no need for a public vote if the party secures its preferred customs union deal, which was now “within reach”.
The letter reflects deep fissures within Labour over whether to demand a confirmatory vote as part of any compromise.
Deputy leader Tom Watson has said: “I don’t think our party would forgive us if we were to sign off on a Tory Brexit without that kind of concession.”
But Labour chairman Ian Lavery reportedly warned shadow cabinet colleagues on Wednesday that backing a referendum could split the party.
Meanwhile, a string of Cabinet ministers signalled that Tories could be prepared to compromise on Labour’s key demand of a post-Brexit customs union arrangement with the EU.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said on Wednesday that avoiding a customs union was not an “article of faith”, while Mr Hammond said Tories should be ready to look at it.
“When you enter into a negotiation like this to find a compromise way forward, both parties have to give something up,” he told Peston. “There is going to be pain on both sides.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he preferred Mrs May’s deal to a customs union, but added: “I have spoken about the problems of a customs union and I don’t think it’s as good for the country. But I also want to deliver Brexit.”
Anger among Tory Brexiteers was increasing, with European Research Group deputy chairman Steve Baker branding the party leadership “out of step with members and, I think, the country”.
“If we find a majority of Conservative MPs voting against the policy, it’s not us who will be moving on,” he warned.
With time running out before Mrs May must inform European Council president Donald Tusk of the UK’s proposal, Downing Street appeared to indicate that it may not be necessary for MPs to approve any consensus deal ahead of the summit.
The PM’s official spokesman said the important thing was to provide the leaders of the other 27 EU states with “clarity” on the way forward, in order for them to feel able to offer a further extension to the Brexit process, which is currently due to end on April 12.
The spokesman said talks involving Mr Barclay, Mrs May’s effective deputy David Lidington and Chief Whip Julian Smith on the Government side and Sir Kier, shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey and opposition chief whip Nick Brown from Labour, were proceeding with “urgency”.
But there was little sign of a conclusion in time to table a motion for a Commons debate on Monday by the Thursday evening deadline, leaving only Tuesday next week – the eve of the summit – for a possible vote.
Mrs May will be expected to spell out the UK’s plans in a letter to Mr Tusk in sufficient time for the other 27 leaders to consider them before they gather in Brussels on Wednesday evening.
Asked whether the Commons vote must take place before Mrs May puts pen to paper, the spokesman said: “What we are obviously working towards is being in a position to set out clarity to the European Council that there is a clear path in Parliament going forward which will allow the UK to leave with a deal and to ratify that deal as soon as possible.”
The House of Lords was debating whether to rush through a backbench bill designed to stop the UK crashing out of the EU next week, after it cleared the Commons in a single day on Wednesday.
But ministers warned that the bill, tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and passed by the Commons with a majority of just one vote, could create the risk of an “accidental no-deal Brexit” because it gives MPs a vote on any extension obtained by Mrs May next week.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay told the Commons the measure could backfire if MPs reject the proposed delay, as there would be no time to renegotiate it before the deadline for departure on Friday.
And Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters: “On Wednesday next week, the European Council could propose an extension of an alternative length to that put forward by Parliament, and under the Bill the Prime Minister would have to return on Thursday April 11 to put that proposal to the House.
“By April 11, the European Council will have concluded and the leaders will have returned to their member states.”
The spokesman added: “The Bill is going to go through the House of Lords today. I’m sure the House of Lords will want to look at the issues that the Secretary of State has raised.”