Brexit talks take positive turn towards possible compromise

Keir Starmer and John McDonnell leave the Cabinet Office

Cross-party talks on Brexit between the government and Labour have moved on to the “nuts and bolts” of a possible compromise, Labour’s Sue Hayman has said, with sources on both sides suggesting discussions were taking a more positive tone.

Talks with senior shadow ministers and officials are likely to continue this week, including on key areas of previous disagreement that had previously been swerved, including a customs union, single market alignment and dynamic alignment of workers’ rights and environmental protections.

It is understood no new offer from the government has been put on the table but participants emerged with a new optimism about a change in tone and a feeling that there were grounds to continue discussions, a marked contrast to last week’s talks.

Theresa May’s de-facto deputy, David Lidington, who has been leading talks for the government, said he was encouraged by the “need to inject greater urgency”.

Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, said it was “a really constructive discussion” that had been “getting much more into the nuts and bolts of the detail.” She said she now believed the government was “open to moving forward in our direction”.

The government has all but abandoned plans to try to force through the Brexit deal using the withdrawal agreement bill and will instead try to devise a way to forge a compromise through new indicative votes if talks with Labour break down.

May’s spokesman said cross-party talks would continue as long as there was “still a prospect of reaching a single position to put to parliament”, but added that the prime minister would then look to bring forward “a small number of votes to try and find a way through parliament”.

Asked whether that would be votes on new options for a Brexit deal or on legislation, the spokesman said: “I’m referring to options.”

There is an acknowledgement that something new must be attempted by the government before…

Labour says Theresa May unwilling to offer key Brexit concessions

Labour shadow cabinet members leave the Cabinet Office after meeting with government officials over Brexit.

Labour has accused Theresa May of failing to offer any substantive changes to her Brexit deal in cross-party talks, as Downing Street’s hopes of a breakthrough in time to avoid taking part in European parliamentary elections waned.

Brexit talks resumed on Tuesday between a team of ministers and shadow ministers. But Labour sources said the government team again appeared unwilling to countenance changes to the political declaration, which sets out the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Instead, ministers offered alternative ways of giving reassurance about the issues Labour has raised, such as on environmental standards and workers’ rights, including through redrafting the withdrawal act implementation bill (WAB) and tweaking separate planned government bills.

Downing Street continues to insist that it hopes to secure parliamentary ratification of a Brexit deal in time to avoid the UK having to participate in next month’s European parliament elections.

The government has been considering tabling the WAB as a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock, but Labour has rejected the idea. “There’s a sequence; you have got to start with a different deal,” said a source.

After the talks, which involved the cabinet ministers David Lidington and Steve Barclay and their Labour shadows, Jeremy Corbyn blamed the government’s refusal to compromise on central issues such as membership of a customs union for the failure to make significant progress.

“We’ll continue putting our case but quite honestly there’s got to be change in the government’s approach. They cannot keep on just regurgitating what has already been emphatically rejected three times by parliament, there’s got to be a change,” Corbyn said. “We have a window of opportunity to bring about that change so I hope the government recognises that.”

However, Downing Street sought to blame a lack of urgency on Labour’s side for the impasse. May’s spokesman said she had told her cabinet on Tuesday morning that talks with Labour had been “serious but had also been difficult in some areas such as in relation to the timetable of the negotiations”.

A No 10 source said the root of the tension was a feeling that Labour was prepared to drag…

Theresa May could put off Queen’s speech amid Brexit turmoil

The Queen

Theresa May could put off the Queen’s speech until later this year, with government sources saying there were no immediate plans to bring one forward while parliament had not yet approved a Brexit deal.

May had been widely expected to schedule a Queen’s speech setting out the government’s legislative agenda within weeks, because she announced a two-year parliamentary session in mid-June 2017.

However, some within the government believe May is prepared to ignore demands for a programme of new laws, even though parliament has run out of business to discuss apart from Brexit legislation, which is currently stalled.

A Downing Street source said it would not be fair to say the Queen’s Speech was being delayed, because no official date had been set for one. “There’s no obligation to have one at a fixed point and there’s no immediate plans to bring forward a Queen’s speech,” the source said.

There is usually one Queen’s speech each year, and it has taken place in May or June in recent years, but Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, announced a two-year session after the last election in order to “build the broadest possible consensus for our Brexit plans”.

There are several reasons why May might shy away from a Queen’s speech, but the most pressing is that she may not have the votes to get it through parliament given the opposition to her Brexit deal among hardline Tory Eurosceptics,…

France, Spain and Belgium ‘ready for no-deal Brexit next week’

Emmanuel Macron’s ambassador said there was no justification, and only danger, in extending UK membership of the EU.

France has won the support of Spain and Belgium after signalling its readiness for a no-deal Brexit on 12 April if there are no significant new British proposals, according to a note of an EU27 meeting seen by the Guardian.

The diplomatic cable reveals that the French ambassador secured the support of Spanish and Belgian colleagues in arguing that there should only be, at most, a short article 50 extension to avoid an instant financial crisis, saying: “We could probably extend for a couple of weeks to prepare ourselves in the markets.”

The chances of Theresa May’s proposal of an extension to 30 June succeeding appeared slim as France’s position in the private diplomatic meeting was echoed by an official statement reiterating its opposition to any further Brexit delay without a clear British plan.

May wrote to the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, on Friday to ask for the delay until 30 June while she battles to win cross-party agreement on a way forward.

EU states are extremely sceptical that an extension to 30 June will resolve anything in Westminster. Tusk is pushing the EU to offer at a summit next Wednesday what he has described as a “flextension” in which the UK would be given a year-long extension with an option to come out early if the deal is ratified.

Responding to May’s letter publicly, France’s secretary of state for European affairs, Amélie de Montchalin, told the Guardian in a statement: “The European council took a clear decision on 21 March … Another extension requires the UK to put forward a plan with clear and credible political backing.” The council would then define the necessary conditions attached to that extension, she said.

“[I]n the absence of such a plan, we would have to acknowledge that the UK chose to leave the EU in a disorderly manner.”

According to the diplomatic cable of the EU27 meeting, the French ambassador said he “failed to see in Theresa May’s letter any argument in favour of a long extension”.

The French ambassador took a sterner line than de Montchalin, insisting that there was no justification, and only danger, in extending the UK’s membership of the EU.

If the EU did only allow a two-week extension the UK would then have an opportunity to revoke article 50, setting up the possibility of a straight vote in parliament between leaving with no deal and overturning the result of the referendum.

But despite the French intervention, a second EU source insisted the “discussion showed wide support to Tusk’s idea of a long…

Brexit: bill to prevent no-deal passes Commons by one vote

A cross-party group of MPs has forced through an emergency bill in less than six hours to instruct Theresa May to seek an extension to article 50 and avoid a no-deal Brexit, despite government opposition.

The bill, spearheaded by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, passed late into the night, with MPs defeating a number of obstructive amendments from both Brexiters and the government.

It finally passed its third reading about half an hour before midnight by just one vote – 313 ayes to 312 noes – and must now pass the House of Lords.

The bill was almost scuppered during a frenzied day in parliament after MPs initially voted by a majority of just one – 312 to 311 – to let the snap bill proceed.

Cooper and Letwin then had six hours to pass the bill’s second reading, committee stage and third reading through the House of Commons.

Minutes before the narrow first vote, an amendment from Labour’s Hilary Benn to grant more time was blocked in extraordinary circumstances, as the Speaker, John Bercow, was forced to make the casting vote after a tied result in the Commons.

Benn’s amendment, which would have given MPs control over the order paper on Monday to hold further indicative votes, fell after MPs’ votes were tied with 310 each way.

Bercow said it was precedent for the Speaker to vote with the government, which…

Civil servants handling no-deal plans offered mental health support

Michael Gove

British civil servants have been offered mental health support to ease the stress of preparing for a no-deal Brexit, it has emerged.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) employed a company with a “cognitive behavioural counselling approach” to provide a wellbeing service for three months until January this year.

It coincided with the recruitment of about 1,300 staff as Defra bolstered its “emergency preparedness in case of a no-deal scenario”, with the department responsible for food and water, waste strategies and animal movements – meaning it has one of the largest no-deal Brexit workloads.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of our staff is always a priority for Defra and we have a range of services on offer to support staff’s mental health. This short-term contract expired at the end of January and bolstered our own wellbeing services for two months while we made changes to our existing employee support.”

It is understood the service was then brought in-house once the department made…

Ministers warned over planes and troops in no-deal Brexit

Mark Sedwill

Cabinet ministers were told they must agree emergency contingency plans to keep planes flying to North America and Australia, as well as keeping British troops legally in Bosnia, in case the EU forces a no-deal exit.

Before their marathon cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, briefed ministers that major security and commercial decisions would need to be completed if Brussels rejected Theresa May’s plan to ask for a short extension to article 50.

A cabinet source said the decisions were likely to result in large costs to the taxpayer and that decisions would also need to be taken on direct rule in Northern Ireland and payment of the UK’s £39bn divorce bill to the EU.

Among the decisions outlined in a 14-page document handed to ministers in Downing Street were:

  • New agreements would be required for air services with Canada, the US and Australia.

  • British troops in Bosnia currently serving as part of an EU force would need to be placed under Nato command.

  • Negotiations would need to be urgently completed on a future fisheries agreement so that EU fishing boats could be expelled from British waters.

Sedwill, the UK’s highest-ranking civil servant, is said to have warned cabinet ministers that some of the biggest decisions were likely to be very difficult to reverse, because they involved international agreements.

The warnings from…

Corbyn and May agree to more talks after ‘constructive’ first day

Jeremy Corbyn will resume Brexit talks with the prime minister on Thursday, after Labour tensions over a second referendum burst into the open, with the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, writing to colleagues to insist any pact must be put to a public vote.

Both Labour and Downing Street described the discussions as “constructive” and said they would hold technical talks, facilitated by civil servants, on Thursday.

“We have had constructive exploratory discussions about how to break the Brexit deadlock,” a Labour spokesperson said. “We have agreed a programme of work between our teams to explore the scope for agreement.”

An emergency shadow cabinet meeting was convened in the aftermath of the discussions to consider how Labour should proceed.

Thornberry wrote to colleagues to say that she was unable to attend for personal reasons – but would have insisted any deal must be subject to a public vote.

“What I would have said is that if we look like reaching any other decision than confirmatory vote that would be in breach of the decision made unanimously by conference in Liverpool and overwhelmingly supported by our members and it needs to be put to a vote‎ by the shadow cabinet,” the letter said.

She said the cabinet had held a vote on Tuesday and the shadow cabinet should adopt the same procedure. If it did, she said, “can I – in writing – confirm that my votes are that yes, any deal agreed by parliament must be subject to a confirmatory public vote, and, yes, the other option on the ballot must be remain”.

Corbyn accepted the prime minister’s surprise offer of negotiations, and her signal that she was willing to contemplate a softer form of Brexit, after a marathon cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

But he faces intense pressure from MPs concerned that he may be willing to sign up to a Brexit deal without submitting it to a referendum – and stressed afterwards that he had raised the issue.

In a tweet after the meeting with May, he said, “I put forward Labour’s alternative plan and raised the option of a public vote to prevent No Deal or leaving…

No guarantee EU would grant long article 50 extension, says Macron

Leo Varadkar and Emmanuel Macron

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has said it should not be taken for granted that the EU would grant the UK a long extension on its departure from the bloc.

Welcoming Ireland’s Leo Varadkar to Paris for talks at the Élysée on Tuesday, Macron said that as the clock ticked down and a no-deal Brexit became more likely, it was far from evident that the EU would agree to a British request for a further article 50 extension.

“A long extension, implying the UK takes part in European elections and European institutions, has nothing easy or automatic about it,” Macron said. “I say that again very strongly. Our priority must be the good functioning of the EU and the single market. The EU can’t be held hostage long-term by the resolution of a political crisis in the UK.”

He continued: “The three times rejection of the withdrawal agreement by the House of Commons and the rejection of all alternative plans now puts us on the path of a UK…

MPs to table emergency bill forcing May to request Brexit delay

Yvette Cooper

MPs will mount an audacious bid to legislate against a no-deal Brexit on Wednesday by rushing an emergency bill through parliament to force Theresa May to request a delay to leaving the EU.

A cross-party group opposed to a no-deal Brexit will bring forward a bill requiring the prime minister to put forward a proposal to extend article 50 to ensure the UK cannot leave the bloc with no deal by default.

The effort is being led by Yvette Cooper, a senior Labour MP, and Sir Oliver Letwin, a Tory former minister, who want to get their one-line bill through the House of Commons in just one day on Wednesday.

The legislation may then be debated in the House of Lords as soon as Friday or Monday, where it is likely to encounter attempts to frustrate its progress by Eurosceptic peers.

Labour sources in the House of Lords said peers against a no-deal Brexit were preparing to stay up all night to ensure any attempts to filibuster the legislation were not successful.

Meanwhile, it is understood there is a plan led by Hilary Benn, the senior Labour MP, to lay an amendment in favour of more indicative votes narrowing the options next Monday, following parliament’s failure to coalesce around one of four soft Brexit options on Monday.

A new option is likely to be put to MPs combining support for a Brexit deal plus customs union with a confirmatory second referendum, which could win new supporters among campaigners for a people’s vote.

There is growing speculation that May could be poised to request an extension to article 50 from the EU of her own accord.

However, it still remains possible that the government could try bring back a third meaningful vote on May’s Brexit deal later this week, if the Speaker, John Bercow, permits it.

Where next for Brexit?

1 April

MPs rejected all

indicative votes

3 April


















runoff with

May’s deal












goes back to


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plan for

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10 April




after short



approves at

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12 April

No-deal exit


article 50


article 50

23 May

UK takes

part in EU





with EU



1 April

MPs rejected all indicative votes

3 April


indicative votes



Cooper (Business motion)


Clear result



Commons debate


Possible runoff

with May’s deal

Lords debate

MPs’ choice






May makes plan for

article 50 extension


goes back to



10 April


after short


Brussels approves

at EU summit



12 April

No-deal exit

Revoke article 50

Extend article 50

23 May

UK takes part

in EU elections

Second referendum

Renegotiate with EU

General election

Guardian graphic

An amendment passed by MPs last week gives them the power to take control of the order paper on certain dates, which they are hoping will give parliament time to debate and pass the bill before May attends an EU summit in Brussels next Wednesday. This is the natural point at which the prime minister would have to request…