Despite narrowly losing two crucial votes at the climax of a tumultuous fortnight at Westminster, senior figures from the four biggest parties believe recent events show momentum is building for the Commons to soften Brexit, or give voters the chance to reconsider.
Talks between the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and pro-EU rebels on the Labour and Tory benches are to continue through the summer, sources from several parties told Scotland on Sunday, in order to coordinate a response to EU reaction on the Prime Minister’s white paper, and to plan for new votes on Brexit legislation in September.
Monday saw the biggest rebellion by pro-EU Conservatives on Brexit so far, with 14 MPs refusing to accept an amendment to the Customs Bill forced on the government by Brexiteers, ruling out a system where the UK would collect EU tariffs on goods destined for the Continent. The government won by 305 votes to 302, a majority of just three.
Ministers scraped through another vote the following night on an amendment to the Trade Bill that could have kept the UK in the EU customs union if no trade agreement has been reached by January, by 307 to 301. The government was narrowly defeated on an amendment to keep the UK under EU medicines regulations, only its second setback in the Commons on Brexit.
The votes prompted claims that there are too few pro-EU Tory rebels to outvote the party’s Brexiteer wing and defeat the government, but a source at the heart of cross-party talks claimed that events in the past week had confirmed momentum was on their side.
They admitted the group had been left “gutted” by defeat on Monday and had “f***ed up” by allowing Lib Dems Vince Cable and Tim Farron to miss the vote, believing the it wouldn’t be close.
But the source said pro-EU voices were “winning the argument” with the Labour front bench and among backbench Tories in the hope of delivering a majority against a hard Brexit, and potentially for a referendum on UK’s final deal.
A Liberal Democrat source confirmed: “These discussions will continue at pace over the summer. With MPs back in their constituencies and away from the clutches of party whips, there is a real prospect of genuine movement towards giving the people final say on Brexit.”
A Labour source said the past week had “moved things up a gear”, but sounded a more cautious note on what secret cross-party talks could achieve.
“The problem is who pulls all this together,” the source said. “A figure needs to emerge as we can’t do this alone.”
Parliamentary deadlock has led to speculation about the emergence of a new centrist party to shake up British politics, but a moderate, pro-EU power base has quietly been at work in parliament for the past year.
It includes MPs and peers from the four biggest parties, who have mounted a shadow whipping operation for major votes as in the past week.
Among Tory MPs, Nicky Morgan is understood to be a key figure in talks with opposition parties, while on the Labour side, Stephen Doughty has taken the leading role.
The fight against Brexit has forged some unlikely alliances, with an SNP source saying colleagues were surprised to hear Tory MP Heidi Allen in the Commons on Wednesday welcome the fact “that sensible people are working cross-party to try to find a way forward in this dreadful mess” – praising opposition parties who are trying to thwart government policy.
This week the Lib Dem leader suggested that “the conditions are there” for a “realignment” of British politics.
“The problem is the Conservative Party is now hopelessly divided in civil war and there is a similar situation in the Labour Party for different reasons,” Cable said. A lot of people in both the major parties are talking openly about breaking away and people outside are trying to encourage it.”
He added: “We recognise a new world is coming and I’m certainly over the summer going to be thinking about how we make ourselves more open and relevant to this new world.”
An SNP source issued a stinging attack on Scottish Conservative MPs for failing to join cross-party talks on securing a soft Brexit. All but one of the 13 Conservative MPs campaigned to Remain in the EU, but none have voted against the government on Brexit.
“You have to have a certain amount of intellectual heft to deal with this stuff,” the source said. “They’ve been very disappointing.”
Meanwhile, in a coup for a separate, public effort to push for a soft Brexit, the Westminster leaders of the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are set to meet EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to show the breadth of support for the UK staying in the single market and customs union.
The parties concerned have only to decide on a date.