Rift over fresh referendum leaves Brexit talks running out of road

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Cross-party Brexit talks were believed to be close to collapse last night after Downing Street firmly rejected demands for any compromise deal to include a referendum that could keep the UK in the EU.

Senior figures from both parties met again last night, but the gulf between them appears to be growing with Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer warning that an agreement was “impossible” without a “confirmatory vote”.

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said Theresa May was “focused on delivering the result of the first referendum”.

Reports that Tory MPs have been placed on a three-line whip later this week raised speculation that the government could make a final attempt to hold votes on a Brexit outcome before European elections on 23 May.

Mrs May’s spokesman said the government was prepared to hold ‘definitive votes’ once Labour’s support is secured.

“If we were able to make progress with Labour then we would look to bring the bill before the House of Commons before the European elections,” he said.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said this week would be “crunch week”, adding that another public vote “would be a betrayal of what people voted for, and we want to implement the first referendum”.

Today’s Cabinet meeting will consider the state of cross-party talks. “There will be a substantive Cabinet discussion on wherever we have got to,” a senior government source said.

But Mr Starmer suggested a deal was beyond reach, warning that “probably 120 if not 150” of the party’s 229 MPs could vote against it unless it was linked to a second referendum.

“I’ve made it clear that at this stage, at this 11th hour, any deal that comes through from this government ought to be subject to the lock of a confirmatory vote,” he said.

And Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said he thought the way out of the impasse was a “confirmatory ballot” on Theresa May’s agreement, saying it would be “difficult” for his party to assist in the UK’s exit from the EU without another referendum.

Mr Watson told the BBC: “If a deal could be found that inspires enough votes in Westminster then fine, but it seemed to me that that’s very, very difficult.

“And so my idea of a confirmatory ballot is not a religious point or a point of ideology, it’s just how do you get an outcome, how do you sort this out?

“And one way to do it are these two minority positions - the Prime Minister’s deal and those that think the people should have a say on the deal - plug them together and you build a majority.”

Mr Watson also insisted Labour was a “remain and reform” party, in defiance of several of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies who have called for the opposition to respect the Brexit referendum result.

Targeting Labour voters on a European election campaign stop in Yorkshire, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage claimed a new referendum would help him win a majority in Parliament at the next general election.

Speaking in Pontefract, part of Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s constituency, Mr Farage said: “A confirmatory vote, it sounds all nice and fluffy, what does it mean? It means we stay in the European Union as we are, or we nominally leave and stay permanently part of a customs union and with single market rules.

“They wouldn’t even give the public the option of actually leaving. It’s the most outrageous proposal I’ve ever seen.”