Second referendum discussed at Tory-Labour Brexit talks

Suggestion floated to extend parliamentary session beyond summer in absence of accord

Britain's Conservative government and Labour have discussed the prospect of a second referendum in talks aimed at finding a common approach to Brexit, Theresa May's de facto deputy said on Monday. Cabinet office minister David Lidington was speaking after the latest negotiating session, which he described as positive and productive.

Labour’s official policy allows for the possibility of a second referendum to prevent a no-deal Brexit or a form of Brexit the party views as damaging to the economy.

“We’ve always known this is part of Labour’s policy platform, so it’s something I would have expected them to raise at these meetings and they have,” Mr Lidington said. “Equally, they know this is not something that is government policy and the last couple of times it has come before the House of Commons, it has been defeated.”

Downing Street suggested on Monday that the current parliamentary session could be extended beyond the summer if MPs fail to approve a Brexit deal before then. The government was expected to start a new parliamentary session in June with a queen’s speech setting out a fresh legislative programme.


Withdrawal agreement

But prime minister Theresa May’s spokesman said the two-year session that began in June 2017 was twice as long as usual in order to deliver Brexit.

“What we are focused on is the withdrawal agreement Bill, because that is the legislation which is necessary in order to ratify our withdrawal from the EU. That is part of the current queen’s speech cycle and we need to finish that work. The government is always bringing forward legislation in order to allow it to deliver on its agenda,” he said.

Whitehall sources acknowledge that the government cannot win a majority for the withdrawal agreement Bill without Labour's "acquiescence" and that it is unlikely to pass before the European Parliament elections on May 23rd. If the Bill is rejected, the government cannot reintroduce it without proroguing parliament and starting a new session with a queen's speech that also risks being rejected by MPs.


The end of the current parliamentary session will also mean the end of the Conservatives' confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned earlier this month that his party would consider any extension of the current session beyond June to be unacceptable.

Former prime minister Tony Blair said on Monday that Brexit was likely to increase pressure in Northern Ireland for a Border poll and for a united Ireland.

"The nationalist community is in favour at a theoretical level, at a conceptual level, but the degree of their agitation for it is intimately connected with their perception as to whether they can achieve nationalist aspirations and the legitimatisation of nationalist feelings within the United Kingdom, " he told the Institute for Government think tank.

“If Brexit acts as a destructive force on that, then it will encourage within the nationalist community, and even within parts of the more liberal unionist community, a feeling towards a Border poll that just wasn’t present during the years that I was in office.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times