As Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn enter a second day of talks on how to break the Brexit deadlock, we’re running out of hyperbole to describe the convulsions in Westminster right now.
In recent days, ministers and shadow ministers have seemed to contradict their own frontbench colleagues on one of the major issues dividing politicians — whether to hold a second referendum.
This is potentially at odds with the principle of collective cabinet responsibility, which usually requires senior ministers (and shadow ministers) to present, to the public at least, a united front.
Let’s take a look.
Theresa May and the majority of her cabinet have repeatedly ruled out a second referendum. But there’s a minority in her top team who have left the door open for a return to the ballot box.
Philip Hammond last night…
The chancellor told ITV’s Peston programme last night that a second referendum, or as he and others have begun to refer to it, a “confirmatory referendum” is “a perfectly credible proposition”.
He contrasts that with “some ideas [that] have been put forward which are not deliverable, they’re not negotiable”.
But, he says “the confirmatory referendum idea, many people will disagree with it, I’m not sure there’s a majority in parliament for it, but it’s a perfectly credible proposition and it deserves to be tested in parliament”.
Others in the cabinet who have left the door open to a second referendum include defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, who said in December: “if parliament does not agree a Brexit deal soon, then we must recognize that the original mandate to leave, taken over two years ago, will begin to date and will, eventually, no longer represent a reflection of current intent.”
Also in December, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said that while she doesn’t want a “people’s vote”, she “could see there would be a plausible argument for it” if parliament couldn’t agree on a deal.
…Matt Hancock this morning
The health secretary, who campaigned to remain in the EU in 2016, said on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that he is “very, very strongly against” a second vote.
He continued: “I’ve argued many, many times that it would be divisive, it wouldn’t be decisive, it doesn’t help us leave the European Union before the European [Parliament] elections”.
Listeners were to be in no doubt: Mr Hancock’s “personal view is that it is wrong, and it doesn’t help us to deliver Brexit because the point here is to respect the result of the referendum, not to challenge the result of the referendum in another referendum.”
The interviewer reminded him of his colleague Philip Hammond’s comments the night before about a public ballot being “perfectly credible”. Mr Hancock replied: “Well, that’s certainly not how I would describe it.”
Cabinet colleagues who share Mr Hancock’s opposition to a second referendum include the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, who told parliament yesterday: “I don’t think we should have a second referendum because it takes us back to square one”. Although he added that “the prime minister will have the discussions [with Jeremy Corbyn] and we will see where they lead”.
Labour shadow cabinet
Unlike their Conservative counterparts, there are several shadow ministers on the Labour benches who have stated outright that they want to see a “people’s vote”.
The latest divisions seem to be over whether the Brexit motion passed at the Labour conference last autumn compels the party to seek a second referendum.
The motion said: “If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote. If the government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from, they should not be afraid to put that deal to the public.”
Emily Thornberry last night…
The shadow foreign secretary wrote to Labour MPs last night to say that, in her view, failure to secure a “confirmatory vote” would be “in breach of the decision made unanimously by [the Labour party] conference in Liverpool and overwhelmingly supported by our members”.
The Islington South MP says her party should only back whatever Brexit deal emerges in parliament on the condition that it’s put to a public ballot — and that “remain” must be an option.
Ms Thornberry is not the only prominent supporter of a second referendum on the Labour frontbench. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, told parliament on Monday that “At this late stage it is clear that any Brexit deal agreed in this parliament will need further democratic approval.”
The party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, told the Marr Show on Sunday that “whatever the [Brexit] deal looks like, if it is underpinned by a people’s vote, that is how we bring the country back together.”
…Shami Chakrabarti this morning
The shadow attorney general was more equivocal about whether a second referendum is necessary. She told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that “the public vote became part of [Labour] policy last autumn” but that “it’s a process thing, not a substance thing”.
Asked directly whether she agreed with Emily Thornberry that a second vote must be held, Baroness Chakrabarti said “I think it would depend on the level of support, it really depends on whether it’s required to break a deadlock. It’s not an end in itself, it’s a means of breaking a deadlock.”
Emily Thornberry said that failing to pursue a second referendum would leave Labour in breach of its conference commitments. But Baroness Chakrabarti suggested that a general election would satisfy Labour’s obligations in that regard. In fact, she said, this was her preferred route.
The interviewer put it to Baroness Chakrabarti that “depending who in the shadow cabinet we hear from, we get a different take on it”.
Baroness Chakrabarti replied: “that’s because people have different seats, they have different constituents, the country’s split down the middle” – appearing to suggest that the differing opinion among her colleagues might not be entirely based on their interpretations of what conference policy requires.
Others who seem to share her reluctance for a second referendum include the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long Bailey, who told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show this weekend that she has “reservations” about the prospect, and “would prefer to push the government into a general election”.
And the party chairman, Ian Lavery, reportedly told Jeremy Corbyn last night that Labour “could be finished” if it takes the country back to the ballot box on Brexit.