London —- Britain’s government is trying to hose down speculation that it is considering a second referendum on Brexit, as ministers assert that Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal could still pass through parliament with a few changes.
May delayed a vote last week on her agreement to leave the European Union because she was set to lose in parliament and has tried to secure “assurances” from the bloc to try to better sell it to sceptical MPs. She then survived an attempt by Euro-sceptic members of her Conservative Party to roll her, but had to concede she would not contest another general election.
Brussels said last week it was ready to help but warned her that she could not renegotiate the deal. With less than four months before Britain is due to leave in March, Brexit, the biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years, is proving anything but smooth, complicated by the deep divisions in parliament and across the country.
With May facing deadlock in parliament over the deal and the EU offering little so far, more politicians are talking about the possibility of Britain leaving without an agreement or a second referendum that could stop Brexit from happening.
Asked if the government was preparing for a vote, education minister Damian Hinds told Sky News on Sunday: “No, a second referendum would be divisive. We’ve had the people’s vote, we’ve had the referendum and now we’ve got to get on with implementing it.”
Trade minister Liam Fox also said a second referendum would “perpetuate” the deep divisions in Britain, adding that the prime minister was securing the necessary assurances to persuade parliament to back her deal. He said that would take some time.
“It will happen over Christmas, it’s not going to happen this week, it’s not going to be quick, it will happen some time in the New Year,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. But others within the May government are reported to be increasingly open to the idea of testing different options for Brexit by voting on them in the parliament.
The Financial Times reported that Education secretary Damian Hinds had said he was open to the idea of “flushing out” the different options, which could include a no-deal Brexit, May’s deal or a second referendum.
Hinds is said to have proposed the idea in a cabinet conference call with May a week ago and was backed by fellow Remain-supporting ministers, including the Chancellor Philip Hammond, business secretary Greg Clark and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
While some senior cabinet figures believe a second referendum may be the only way out of the impasse to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29, they believe that all other options must be tested first.
The longer it takes, voices urging a change of tack are getting louder and the pressure on the main opposition Labour Party to move against the government is rising. May will urge MPs on Monday not to “break faith with the British people” by demanding a second referendum and will make a statement in the Parliament on last week’s European council summit.
She will add that another vote would “likely leave us no further forward than the last” and “further divide our country at the very moment we should be working to unite it”.
The Financial Times reported that Margaret Beckett, the former Labour foreign secretary and a leading campaigner for a second referendum, said the fact May felt the need to release part of her statement in advance reflected the growing pressure for another vote.
“A new public vote would be different from the referendum in 2016 because we now know more about what Brexit means,” Beckett said. “There is no deal that can meet all the promises made for it — or one that is as good as the deal we already have in the EU.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is expected to take the opportunity to call on her to hold a vote on her deal this week, and senior Labour figures refuse to rule out an imminent no-confidence motion if she fails to do so. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said if Britain wanted to put an “entirely new” Brexit proposal forward, the government would most likely have to delay its departure.
Although May survived as leader last week, opposition parties are calling for Labour to propose a parliamentary motion of no confidence against the government this week. Labour has repeatedly said it will call such a motion at “the best time”, or when it knows it can win, and for now will try to force the government to bring its deal to parliament sooner.
Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s policy chief for communities and local government, said: “We will be using whatever mechanisms we have at our disposal next week to try and force the government to bring forward that deal for a vote before Christmas.”