Theresa May admits Brexit defeat in Commons could lead to second referendum on EU

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Theresa May has admitted that a defeat for her Brexit deal at next week’s crucial vote in the House of Commons could open the door to a second EU referendum.

With only days to go until MPs decide whether to accept or reject her Brexit plan, the Prime Minister said a defeat for the government would put the UK’s exit from the EU “in danger”.

Picture: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

Picture: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

In a warning to Conservative MPs planning to vote against the deal, Mrs May said they were risking “no Brexit at all” by trying to achieve an impossible “perfect” exit from the European Union.

Parliament returns from its winter recess today and a debate on Brexit is set to restart on Wednesday, with the crucial vote expected to take place on or around 
15 January.

Mrs May said the vote would “definitely” go ahead and that between now and then she would set out “assurances” in three key areas with the hope of gaining enough support to get her deal through.

She said these involved new measures specific to Northern Ireland, a greater role for Parliament in shaping the Brexit process and further assurances from Brussels, with the last yet to be finalised.

The Prime Minister also re­affirmed her opposition to a second referendum, claiming this would be “disrespecting” people who voted for Brexit.

But she admitted she had no way of knowing what might happen if MPs rejected her deal, adding that the country would be in uncharted territory.

“I don’t think anyone can say what will happen in terms of the reaction we see in Parliament,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday.

“We have got people who are promoting a second referendum in order to stop Brexit, and we have got people who want to see their perfect ­Brexit.

“I would say: don’t let the search for the perfect become the enemy of the good, because the danger there is that we end up with no Brexit at all.”

Mrs May also refused to rule out holding a series of votes on her Brexit deal in the Commons if MPs reject it the first time around.

The Prime Minister repeatedly sidestepped questions in the interview on whether she would simply keep putting the deal back to MPs with amendments in an attempt to get it through.

Last week a Downing Street source suggested Mrs May could ask MPs to vote again and again on her deal to get it through Parliament. “If we have to have the vote 30 times, we will,” they said.

Mrs May now faces a race against time to persuade enough MPs – including many in her own party – to support her plan, with the parliamentary arithmetic currently against her.

Meanwhile, the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said a future Labour government would call a second referendum on Brexit if MPs refused to support any new deal it negotiated with Brussels.

Ms Thornberry said her party would be happy to “go back to the people” if it won power at a snap general election but failed to get its own Brexit plans through.

The MP, a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn, also said Labour would back another EU referendum if Mrs May was replaced as prime minister by someone who backed a no-deal Brexit.

Her views were echoed by her fellow shadow cabinet minister, Barry Gardiner, who said it would “make sense” to call another vote if Labour won power and secured a fresh deal with Brussels.

Labour’s current policy is to push for a general election if Mrs May fails to get her Brexit deal through Parliament next week.

But Mr Corbyn would be under pressure to back another referendum if this proved impossible, with a YouGov poll suggesting support for another vote is high among Labour supporters.

The survey of more than 25,000 people, commissioned by the People’s Vote campaign, found that 75 per cent of Labour voters supported the idea of another referendum.

Ms Thornberry said she believed that another general ­election was the most likely way of breaking the deadlock on Brexit, adding it could happen “within months”.

She said in a radio interview that if there was a general election Mr Corbyn would run on a promise to negotiate a new deal with Brussels, which would include a new UK-EU customs union.

But she added: “If Parliament says, ‘This is just nonsense, this is no better than Theresa May’s [deal],’ we will put our hands up to that. We would, 
I think at that point, need to 
go back to the people 
again.”

Mr Gardiner insisted that a Labour government would be able to get a “different, better deal” to the one secured by Mrs May as it would not have the same red lines.

“At that stage it makes sense to go to the country and say, ‘Here we are, this is what we have managed to negotiate...we think it’s a better way forward’,” he said.

“And it seems to me, at a personal level... that is the time when we would then say to people, ‘Now make your decision on what we have managed to conclude’.”