Cabinet to discuss whether to axe Brexit talks with Labour

14 May 2019, 00:15 | Updated: 14 May 2019, 09:57

Theresa May and her bitterly divided cabinet are meeting to decide whether to axe cross-party Brexit talks with Labour that have failed to achieve a breakthrough in six weeks.

Pro-Brexit cabinet ministers are urging the prime minister to call time on the negotiations after the latest meeting broke up after two hours without making any significant progress.

And a group of former cabinet ministers and senior Tories have written to the PM claiming she will split the party if she strikes a deal with Labour to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU.

Some 13 of Mrs May's former cabinet colleagues, including Boris Johnson, as well as Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, are urging her not to compromise with Labour on Brexit.

The group also includes former defence secretaries Gavin Williamson and Sir Michael Fallon and the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who like Mr Johnson is a pro-Brexit Tory leadership candidate.

In their letter the MPs also warn the prime minister a deal with Labour would not be binding on her successor, which has been Labour's concern during the cross-party talks.

They write: "We believe that a customs union-based deal with Labour will very likely lose the support of Conservative MPs like us, who backed the withdrawal agreement in March… and you would be unlikely to gain as many Labour MPs to compensate.

"More fundamentally, you would have lost the loyal middle of the Conservative Party, split our party and with likely nothing to show for it.

"No leader can bind his or her successor, so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worst illusory."

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Jeremy Corbyn was also urged to withdraw Labour from the talks during a heated meeting with his MPs in which his Brexit policy came under sustained attack from pro-Remain MPs.

Downing Street sources said the cabinet would hold a "substantial discussion" on whether to abandon the cross-party talks and many MPs are predicting they will be called off.

A statement issued after the latest meeting, which took place hidden away from journalists and TV cameras in a basement in the Houses of Parliament, suggested the talks had come to an end.

"In preparation for an update to cabinet tomorrow, today's meeting took stock across the range of issues discussed in talks over the last few weeks," a Downing Street spokesman said.

"We continue to seek to agree a way forward in order to secure our orderly withdrawal from the EU."

Nigel Evans, a Tory MP who sits on the executive of the 1922 committee, called the talks a "cosmetic exercise", and told Sky News that accepting a customs union would "risk losing the middle-ground completely".

Labour said after the cross-party meeting that the shadow cabinet and trade unions would be updated on what had been discussed. But sources confirmed "no substantive progress" had been made.

At the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, MPs including former deputy leader Dame Margaret Beckett asked Mr Corbyn why the party was taking part in "talks that are going nowhere".

In a 90-minute confrontation that was at times heated, the Labour leader also came under attack from pro-Remain MPs demanding a firmer commitment to the party's policy of supporting a second Brexit referendum.

Many MPs complained that the party's pitch to voters in next week's European elections was too complicated and claimed Nigel Farage's Brexit Party was gaining support because it had a simple message.

Peter Kyle, who proposed a second referendum in Commons debates earlier this year, told Mr Corbyn: "I urge you to simplify our policy so people realise we are speaking with absolute sincerity."

Referendum campaigner Stephen Doughty told the Labour leader: "Why is the Brexit Party surging? Because they've got a clear message... We have four sets of adverts, they have 36 ad streams."

Responding to the criticism, Mr Corbyn told his MPs: "I understand the need for a clear message.

"I don't want to be in a position where our members don't understand what we are saying, where our voters don't understand what we are saying.

"We know we are under attack. The only way is to strengthen our message in an understandable, simpler way. I get that."

Later, Mr Corbyn also faced thinly veiled criticism from Labour's deputy leader, Tom Watson, who was making a speech to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of the former Labour leader John Smith.

Mr Watson told an audience of Labour MPs and party grandees: "Had John still been with us he would have provided a strong counter narrative to the anti-EU sentiment that set in and festered for the two decades leading up to the 2016 referendum.

"And I think that were he here now, to witness the great damage this process is wreaking on our country and our public debate, he would have taken a stand very similar to that of his deputy, Margaret Beckett, and backed a people's vote."