Sir Keir Starmer demands new referendum ahead of cross-party Brexit talks

12 May 2019, 22:03 | Updated: 13 May 2019, 12:25

Labour's Sir Keir Starmer has turned up the heat on the government ahead of new cross-party Brexit talks by demanding a referendum as the price of a deal.

The shadow Brexit secretary claims up to 150 of Labour's 229 MPs would refuse to vote for a deal if the government failed to promise a new poll.

In an interview in The Guardian, Sir Keir:

• Suggested a referendum must be part of any package agreed with the government.

• Said Labour could call time on the cross-party talks within days if it became clear no new offer was forthcoming.

• Warned Theresa May would further damage the prospect of any deal if she set an imminent departure date from Number 10.

Sir Keir's ultimatum came 24 hours after former defence secretary Gavin Williamson said Mrs May's attempts to do a Brexit deal with Labour were "destined to fail" and would "end in tears".

Mr Williamson accused the prime minister of being "politically naive", and he claimed Jeremy Corbyn and Labour would do all they could to cause the government to fail.

Raising the stakes ahead of another crunch meeting with ministers, Sir Keir said: "A significant number of Labour MPs, probably 120 if not 150, would not back a deal if it hasn't got a confirmatory vote.

"If the point of the exercise is to get a sustainable majority, over several weeks or months of delivering on the implementation, you can't leave a confirmatory vote out of the package.

"I've made it clear 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."

Sir Keir said finding a parliamentary majority for any deal, whatever the circumstances, was "very difficult", and suggested he could not sign up to any agreement if he feared it would fail.

He added: "It has got to be something truly deliverable.

"For many of my colleagues, they have made it clear that they will not vote for a deal without a confirmatory vote attached to it.

"So if you want that stable majority, that has to be taken into account.

"And without it, it is impossible to see how the numbers would stack up."

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Sir Keir said there was seriousness on both sides, but progress was hindered by the substance of the government's offer on Labour demands, such as a comprehensive customs union, and the threat of a new Conservative leader.

He said: "Is the government actually prepared to change its red lines? The answer is, so far, not really.

"On substance, there is a considerable distance between us."

He said progress had not been helped by remarks from Tory leadership hopefuls, such as Jeremy Hunt's suggestion he would oppose a customs union, or Boris Johnson's comments about tearing up current agreements.

Sir Keir added: "These talks cannot be divorced from the very obvious leadership battle."

Pressure on Mrs May to name the date for her departure from Number 10 risked further damage to the process, he continued.

The MP warned: "You don't normally seek to do a deal with someone about to leave office.

"Therefore, if she sets a date, it makes things even more tight."

The shadow Brexit secretary also suggested Labour should not be afraid to call off the talks within days if progress seemed out of reach, adding: "I think it would be wrong in principle to use up much more time simply exploring each other's positions.

"I do think we do probably in the coming days need to make that assessment."

Shadow communities secretary James Brokenshire said Sir Keir's comments on a referendum were "at variance with what the Labour Party has previously been saying".

He signalled the government would not budge from opposing a fresh poll, adding: "Putting another vote back to the British public - that's actually delaying, that's creating more division."