Tories and Labour just ‘half an inch apart’ on Brexit, says minister

The Conservatives and Labour are just “half an inch apart” on the terms of a Brexit deal, a Cabinet minister has claimed.

International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said that despite the collapse last week of cross-party talks aimed at finding an agreed way forward, there was little that divided the two sides.

He suggested that even if the Labour leadership was not prepared to support Theresa May’s deal when she brings it back to the Commons next month, other “moderate, sensible” Labour MPs may do so.

The Prime Minister has said she is preparing to make a “bold offer” to MPs in a final attempt to get her beleaguered deal through Parliament and onto the statute book before she leaves office.

However, Jeremy Corbyn said he had heard nothing yet from the Government that would persuade him that Labour should now fall in behind her Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels.

“We haven’t seen whatever the new Bill is going to be yet but nothing I’ve heard leads me to believe it’s fundamentally any different to the previous Bill that’s been put forward, so as of now we’re not supporting it,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

Ministers will begin discussions on Monday on a package of measures to be included in the forthcoming Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) aimed at securing cross-party support.

The weekly meeting of the Cabinet on Tuesday will then consider plans for a series of “indicative votes” in the Commons to establish which proposals could command a majority in the House.

Theresa May has said she is ready to make a ‘bold’ new offer to MPs (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Theresa May has said she is ready to make a ‘bold’ new offer to MPs (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Mr Stewart said that ministers now needed to reach out to Labour MPs who might be prepared to vote for the Bill.

“The Labour and Conservative positions are about half an inch apart,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

“We’re in the territory of a deal, and if we are in the territory of a deal, where we need to focus is Parliament, and particularly getting Labour votes across.

“Maybe not Jeremy Corbyn’s vote but there are many other moderate sensible Labour MPs that we should get across.”

The WAB – which is needed to ratify the deal with Brussels – is expected to include new measures on protecting workers’ rights, an issue where agreement with Labour was said to have been close.

However, Government sources made clear the package would not just be aimed at Labour MPs but would seek to secure the widest possible support across the Commons.

It is expected to include provisions on future customs arrangements with the EU, on environmental protections, and on Northern Ireland, including the use of technology to avoid the need for border controls with the Republic.

Jeremy Corbyn, appearing on The Andrew Marr Show, says he has seen nothing new from the Government (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)
Jeremy Corbyn, appearing on The Andrew Marr Show, says he has seen nothing new from the Government (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

It will not, however, seek to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement – which included the controversial Northern Ireland “backstop” – after the EU repeatedly made clear it could not be re-negotiated.

Writing in The Sunday Times, Mrs May said: “I still believe there is a majority in Parliament to be won for leaving with a deal.

“When the Withdrawal Agreement Bill comes before MPs, it will represent a new, bold offer to MPs across the House of Commons, with an improved package of measures that I believe can win new support.

“Whatever the outcome of any votes, I will not be simply asking MPs to think again. Instead I will ask them to look at a new and improved deal with fresh pairs of eyes – and to give it their support.”

Mrs May has said she will bring the WAB before MPs for its second reading vote in the first week of June following the short Whitsun recess.

Regardless of how the vote goes, she will then meet the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, to agree a timetable to elect her successor as party leader, paving the way for her departure from No 10.

The Prime Minister expected to set out details of her WAB proposals in a major speech before the end of the month.

But after three previous attempts to get her deal through the Commons went down to hefty defeats, many Tory MPs are sceptical that her fourth will fare any better.

Another defeat would almost certainly see a ratcheting up of demands for her to go immediately, amid intense frustration at her failure to deliver on the 2016 referendum result.

- Press Association

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