LONDON – U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond ramped up the pressure on Brexiteer Tory MPs as he warned they will trigger a long delay to leaving the European Union unless they support Theresa May’s proposed deal when it returns to Parliament.
A growing number of Tories are now backing the prime minister’s agreement, he said, and the deal will only be put to another vote in the House of Commons this week if the government is confident of victory. The deal was defeated for the second time on Tuesday, and persuading opponents to switch their vote is “a work in progress,” Hammond said.
“What’s happened since last Tuesday is a significant number of colleagues have changed their view on this, and decided the alternatives are so unpalatable to them that they, on reflection, think that the prime minister’s deal is the best way to deliver Brexit,” Hammond said in an interview with BBC TV on Sunday. “It’s absolutely vital that we get it through next week. It’s the final chance to do this deal without having a long extension,” he said.
May has already conceded that her proposed exit date of March 29 will have to be pushed back and warned the delay could be much longer if Parliament refuses to back her agreement before Thursday’s meeting of the EU Council. That would mean the U.K. people would vote to elect members of the European Parliament in May.
“EU leaders would require a clear purpose for any extension that was not merely technical,” May wrote in an article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. “If the proposal were to go back to square one and negotiate a new deal, that would mean a much longer extension. The idea of the U.K. people going to the polls to elect MEPs three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about. There could be no more potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure.”
While an official said last week that Tuesday was the most likely day for another vote, Trade Secretary Liam Fox also said the deal May has negotiated will only return to Parliament if the prime minister believes she can win.
“There’s no point in having a vote if we have no chance of winning,” Fox said in an interview with Sky News on Sunday. “It would be difficult to justify.”
There was an indication of the shift among Tory MPs when Esther McVey, who quit the Cabinet to protest May’s agreement, said she now will be backing the deal. While she sill thinks it’s a bad agreement, McVey has come to the conclusion it’s “this deal or no deal whatsoever,” she told Sky News on Sunday morning.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which could deliver 10 crucial votes and help sway rebel Tories to back May’s deal, denied on Saturday that its talks with ministers revolved around cash for Northern Ireland. Hammond said discussions had concerned the Irish border, and he hadn’t been there to offer bribes. He did, however, point out that allocations for the province will soon be under consideration.
“This isn’t about money, this is about political assurance,” Hammond said when asked about the talks. He then added that “we are coming up to a spending review and we will have to look at all budgets, including devolved block-grant budgets, in that spending review.”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour opposition, said his party’s MPs are likely to be instructed to back an amendment calling for a referendum on any deal approved by Parliament. He said he might back leaving the EU in such a plebiscite if the deal was right, setting up a clash with pro-EU members of his party.
The way he would vote in a referendum would “depend on the choice in front of us,” Corbyn told Sky News. “If we’ve got a good deal in which we could have a dynamic relationship with Europe, which was all the trading relationship and so on, then that might be a good way forward that unites the country.”
Labour has attempted to straddle the U.K.’s Brexit divide as it needs the support of voters in “leave”-backing districts to win power. Corbyn reiterated his call for a general election, and said he may move a motion of no confidence in the government if May loses in the House of Commons again.
Any referendum question “would obviously have to be a credible choice that’s real for both those that wanted to vote ‘leave,’ or did vote ‘leave’ in 2016, as well as those that voted ‘remain,'” Corbyn said. “We are appealing to people who voted both ‘leave’ and ‘remain,’ because at the end of the day it’s the social issues facing this country, the poverty, the insecure work, the homelessness and the growing inequality that are crucial.”