Theresa May on Tuesday told MPs they will have a vote on whether to hold a second EU referendum and the possibility of a close customs arrangement with the bloc if they support her “bold new” Brexit deal.
The UK prime minister said that if MPs back her withdrawal agreement bill — the legislation implementing the draft exit treaty with the EU — she would also give time for a subsequent vote to allow a referendum on the final deal.
“I recognise the genuine and sincere strength of feeling across the House on this important issue,” said Mrs May. “The government will therefore include in the withdrawal agreement bill at introduction a requirement to vote on whether to hold a second referendum.
“So to those MPs who want a second referendum to confirm the deal — you need a deal and therefore a withdrawal agreement bill to make it happen.”
A confirmatory referendum could give Labour MPs some political cover to support the legislation, although the prime minister’s prospects of success remain slim.
The last time MPs voted on holding a referendum on any final deal it was rejected by a margin of 292 to 280, with 66 MPs abstaining. Labour whipped its MPs to support the proposal on that occasion.
However, since that vote was held in March, some Conservative MPs have come round to the idea of a second referendum.
Mrs May’s plan — characterised by many MPs as a final, desperate bid to win House of Commons backing for a deal it has already rejected three times — also includes proposals to keep Britain aligned to EU standards on workers’ rights and the environment, as well as giving parliament a say over the mandate for a future trade negotiation.
In another nod to Labour, the prime minister also promised MPs a vote to choose between government plans to reduce trade friction with the EU but remain outside a customs union and alternative proposals for a temporary customs union for goods.
The cabinet held heated discussions on Tuesday on the new plan. Many MPs see little chance that the Commons will back the exit deal and Mrs May has promised to lay out her plans to leave office if it is voted down again.
But, following the collapse of talks on a Brexit compromise between the government and Labour, she has decided to press ahead regardless with the legislation.
The Labour leadership says the commitments offered by the government in the cross-party talks — notably the suggestion of a customs union on goods — did not go far enough.
The draft exit treaty with the EU already includes a transition in which the UK would remain in the bloc’s customs union and single market until the end of 2020, extendable to the end of 2022. But Mrs May is still hoping to peel off enough Labour MPs to get the legislation through.
Julian Smith, government chief whip, urged ministers to back the new compromise plan, warning that the “numbers won’t be there” unless some Labour MPs are wooed into the government lobbies, according to one person with knowledge of the cabinet discussions.
But Eurosceptic ministers are deeply unenthusiastic about any suggestion of close customs arrangements with the EU for a prolonged period.
Some members of the cabinet interpreted angry comments by Chris Grayling, transport secretary, as a prelude to his possible resignation, although his allies denied he was about to walk out of the cabinet.
Meanwhile David Mundell, Scottish secretary, warned that a no-deal exit would lead to the unravelling of the union.
He said a no-deal exit would increase pressure for a “border poll” on the reunification of Ireland with knock-on effects for demands for Scottish independence.
Mrs May’s plan also seeks to address the fierce opposition expressed by Eurosceptic Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party about the so-called backstop: measures intended to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The cabinet discussed “alternative arrangements” for the border, favoured by Tory Eurosceptics who worry that the backstop could “trap” the UK in a customs union with Brussels.
“As part of the new Brexit deal we will place the government under a legal obligation to seek to conclude alternative arrangements by December 2020 so that we can avoid any need for the backstop coming into force,” said Mrs May.
The deal also seeks to provide assurances on protecting the integrity of Britain — an attempt to meet the concerns of the DUP, which normally provides Mrs May with her majority in parliament, but which says the backstop is unacceptable because it would treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.
“Should the backstop come into force, the government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland,” said Mrs May.
“We will prohibit the proposal that a future government could split Northern Ireland off from the UK’s customs territory.”
However, there is little sign that Eurosceptic Conservatives have been won round — some who backed the deal when it was defeated by 58 votes in March now say they will oppose it. The DUP’s 10 MPs also say they will maintain their opposition.