If May survived vote Labour would start seeking second referendum, Keir Starmer says
Labour would almost certainly seek a vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s government if she lost the key Commons
Labour would almost certainly seek a vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s government if she lost the key Commons vote on her Brexit deal in nine days’ time, Keir Starmer has said.
Keeping up the intense pressure on the prime minister in the run-up to the vote on 11 December, the shadow Brexit secretary also confirmed that Labour would begin contempt of parliament proceedings against ministers if they failed to publish the government’s full legal advice on the implications of May’s deal.
Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, Starmer said Labour was expecting May to lose the initial vote, given the opposition of so many Tory MPs and of her DUP informal coalition partners.
“I think the prime minister, as we all know, is going to struggle between now and that vote,” Starmer said, saying that if she lost, the PM would need to then outline her next move to the Commons.
“We need to see what that is. But it seems to me that if the prime minister has lost a vote of that sort of significance, then there has to be a question of confidence in he government,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable that we will seek to move that.
“Obviously, it’ll depend on what actually happens in nine days, it depends on what the response is. But if she’s lost a vote of this significance after two years of negotiation, then it is right that there should be a general election because, but for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the convention was always, if a government loses what’s called a confidence vote, something of such significance, then that government has to go.”
Labour’s policy has long been to push for a general election if no Brexit deal can be reached, but Starmer’s comments firm up the likely timetable. If May’s government were not deposed, he said, Labour would start seeking a second referendum.
If this took place, he added, the vote should not include the option of a no-deal departure from the EU, as this would be too damaging for the UK.
“I don’t actually think that this prime minister will move to a no-deal situation,” he said. “She knows the risks, she’s very serious about counter-terrorism and security. I don’t think, when she stands up if she loses this vote, that she’s likely to say: I’m now going to take the country off the cliff, I’m going to go for the no-deal scenario.”
Speaking later on the same show the Conservative party chair, Brandon Lewis, again urged MPs to back May’s deal, saying there was no plan B.
“Well actually, plan B is plan A – to get this deal agreed. It is the only deal that’s there on the table. It’s the only option we have got. If this deal doesn’t go through we have the risk of no Brexit, no deal potentially,” he said.
In a more immediate Brexit row, Labour has said it is ready to combine with other opposition parties to start proceedings for contempt of parliament unless the legal opinion of the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, on May’s plan is published in full.
The DUP, which props up the Conservative government in the Commons, was said to be ready to sign a joint letter with other parties to the Speaker, John Bercow, on Monday unless ministers backed down.
Starmer said that the government would be “getting into very, very deep water” if it still refused to release the advice after the Commons passed a so-called humble address motion from Labour seeking its publication, with the government abstaining. Ministers have said that they will only publish a precis of the advice.
“If they don’t produce it tomorrow, then we will start contempt proceedings, and this will be a collision course between the government and parliament,” Starmer said.
”I accept that it’s exceptional to have that disclosed. It has happened in the past, but it is exceptional,” he said. “That’s why we had a debate in parliament, to say, is this the sort of case where it’s so exceptional that it should be disclosed, and at the end of that debate the house could have divided, the government could have voted against it.
“It didn’t, so it can’t come along now and say, ‘We didn’t vote against the order but now we don’t want to comply with it.’”
Lewis insisted that MPs should be satisfied with Cox’s summary: “There’s a historic, centuries-old custom in this country, proper legal precedent, that client confidentiality enables lawyers to give advice to clients, whether it’s the government or anything else. That’s an important part of our constitution, and the way government works.”
The latest row erupted as it was reported that Cox, who is due to make a statement to the Commons on Monday, had warned the UK could be tied to the EU customs union “indefinitely” through the Northern Ireland backstop.
The Sunday Times said that in a letter sent to cabinet ministers Cox advised the only way out of the backstop – designed to prevent the return of a hard border with the Irish Republic – once it was invoked was to sign a new trade deal, a process that could take years.