One of Boris Johnson’s cabinet ministers has revived back-channel discussions with Labour MPs over their potential support for a Brexit deal for the first time since Theresa May’s failed attempts to gain their backing.
A government source said exploratory conversations began five to six days ago, including a face-to-face meeting with some Labour representatives of the MPs for a Deal group, which is led by Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock.
Cabinet ministers in favour of a deal are highly aware that they would almost certainly need more Labour MPs than the five who voted for May’s Brexit agreement last time – Flint, Rosie Cooper, Jim Fitzpatrick, Kevin Barron and John Mann.
Boris Johnson insists that he is aiming to win parliamentary support for a new agreement and he will table new proposals to the EU for solving the Irish border issue this week. He would hope to win over the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and most hardline Eurosceptics, but he would still need the support of Labour MPs unless there were fewer than six unsupportive Tory Brexiters.
However, the prime minister has put little to no effort into gaining the backing of Labour MPs, many of whom were outraged by his response to their concerns that inflammatory language about Brexit is contributing to death threats against those blocking no deal.
A Labour MP confirmed the meeting with a senior cabinet minister had taken place but described the conversation as “circular”. There was no indication whether the government is prepared to offer any concessions that would be necessary for them to back a deal, such as the tabling of the withdrawal agreement bill rather than a simple meaningful vote, greater protections for workers’ rights and the environment, and a vote on any future trade deal.
Three cabinet sources have said that No 10 was focused on forcing a moment in parliament where MPs were obliged to make a decision between a deal and no deal, in spite of the Benn legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit. This could mean trying to persuade the EU to offer a deal on a take it or leave it basis with no possibility of an extension if this is rejected by parliament.
Damian Green, May’s former deputy, told BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday that he found it “hard to believe” that MPs would reject a deal if Johnson managed to secure one.
Green, who is chair of the One Nation group of Conservative MPs, said he believes the pressure on MPs to accept a deal will be “much greater even than it was when Theresa May was putting her deal to the House of Commons”.
“If we can get a deal with the European Union, and that’s still a big if, if we can do that, I find it hard to believe that the House of Commons would reject it again,” he said.
“If we can get a deal, then the external pressure on parliament will be much greater even than it was when Theresa May was putting her deal to the House of Commons.
“Assuming that we get some kind of arrangement that’s not the backstop, which seems to be what lies behind the British government’s latest proposals this morning, then that will make it more palatable, certainly to a lot of my colleagues on the Conservative side, and there is this group formed, MPs for a Deal, which contains a lot of prominent Labour MPs.”
• This article was amended on 2 October 2019 to remove an incorrect reference to John Mann being an independent MP. He has been nominated as a non-affiliated life peer but will remain a Labour MP until either the next general election or when he is elevated to the House of Lords. He says he will continue to be a Labour party member.