A series of informal but concerted efforts by pro-remain politicians to reshape or even derail the Brexit process is under way and gaining momentum, according to people involved.
MPs from across the parties had discussed how to push the government into revealing its Brexit plans and to ensure continued single market access, sources said, as a series of senior political figures made public interventions suggesting the result of the EU referendum could be reversed.
Tony Blair and John Major both suggested this week that the public should be allowed to vote on or even veto any deal for leaving the EU. However, those connected to efforts by serving pro-remain MPs say the former prime ministers’ views had little support in the Commons.
More significant, they argued, were strategy discussions involving MPs from all parties “caught between their own views and those expressed at the ballot box” in the referendum.
“It’s a long process of gradually bringing people round to our way of thinking, on all sides,” said someone who works closely with pro-remain figures. “A lot of people are a bit unsure what to do – they’re caught between their own views and those expressed at the ballot box, often by their own constituents.
“There’s a growing realisation that this is a long game. There’s actually very little information out there, and very little substance to get into. It’s hard to coalesce people around particular policy positions when the government has no policy to speak of. That’s quite a challenge.”
Major told a private dinner that there was a “perfectly credible case” for holding a second referendum on the terms of a Brexit deal. He said the views of the 48% of people who voted to remain should be taken into account and warned against the “tyranny of the majority”.
Blair, in particular, is known to be sounding out opinion on Brexit as part of his re-emergence into political life. The former Labour prime minister’s office said he had discussed the issue with the former chancellor George Osborne, among “many people”.
One source with knowledge of the meetings said Blair’s office had been contacting a raft of prominent figures, including Major, the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and his successor, Tim Farron.
Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister turned political consultant, had also been offering connections and advice, the source said. Another source described Mandelson as “a fairly key operator”.
Mandelson also chose this week to express his views on Brexit, telling the BBC that once a deal for leaving the EU was known, people must be able to “express a view about it, either directly or indirectly through parliament”.
Serving MPs from all parties are known to be having regular, if informal, meetings and discussions about the Brexit process. Pro-remain Labour and Conservative MPs, including those working together on exiting the EU select committee, are having regular meetings about the debate, and a response to any potential article 50 bill.
Those involved stress, however, that this does not amount to a plot to reverse Brexit – especially as the idea of a second referendum has little support among MPs.
Aside from the Lib Dems, only a handful of MPs have called publicly for another vote, including Labour’s Owen Smith and David Lammy. The Scottish National party has pledged to oppose any Brexit legislation.
However, according to another source familiar with the discussions among pro-remain MPs, there is considerable and growing support for moves to influence the wider Brexit trajectory, not least to pressure the government to outline more of its plans.
There is a similarly broad consensus emerging over the need to prioritise some form of access to the EU’s single market, and to agree a transitional trade agreement with the EU on the assumption that a formal deal will take longer than the two-year timetable mandated under article 50.
Some efforts are taking place openly. On Monday, Clegg, the Tory MP Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Umunna will appear at a joint event organised by the Open Britain group to push for continued access to the single market. Meanwhile, the former Labour minister Alan Milburn is set to launch an organisation to oppose Brexit directly.
Peter Lilley, another leading Conservative Eurosceptic, said it was “odd for a democrat to be against majority rule”. He told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One: “Obviously, John Major has changed his views since he used to get elected on majorities.”
In a further move, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, is set to accuse the Liberal Democrats of being “Brexit deniers”, seeking to overturn the referendum as a means to increase their vote.
Watson’s speech in Birmingham on Saturday reiterates Labour’s attempts to be seen as not frustrating the EU departure process, an effort inspired in part to appeal to the party’s traditional heartlands, many of which voted strongly for leave.
“The Lib Dems are desperately, openly, shamelessly trying to recover some sort of electoral relevance by coming out as Brexit deniers,” Watson is due to say.
“I can see why it’s attractive to Tim Farron, as the leader of a party on 8%, to want to be the party of the 48%. That can never be an option for a party like Labour, that wants to represent everyone. We are not in denial about Brexit. We will not attempt to obstruct the triggering of article 50.”
Labour would, however, still “press hard the government hard on the terms on which we leave the EU in order to achieve a settlement that benefits us all”.
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