Theresa May has refused to say if she would vote for Brexit if another referendum were held today, saying instead she would have to “weigh up the evidence” before deciding what to do in the current situation.
The prime minister, who voted to remain in the EU in last year’s poll, struggled to give clear answers on Brexit issues during an LBC radio phone-in on Tuesday, and admitted there was no plan for what would happen to EU citizens living in the UK if no deal was agreed with Brussels.
May initially said she would not deal with hypothetical questions, but when repeatedly pressed by the presenter, Iain Dale, on how she would vote if there was a fresh referendum, she gave a series of long responses to avoid answering the yes/no question.
“I voted remain for good reasons at the time, but circumstances move on … you’re asking me to say how would I vote in a vote now against a different background, a different international background, a different economic background.”
Pressed again, she said: “I could sit here and I could say ‘Oh, I’d still vote remain or I’d vote leave’ just to give you an answer to that question. I’m being open and honest with you.
“What I did last time round was I looked at everything and came to a judgment and I’d do exactly the same this time round.”
Opposition parties said May’s responses showed she was not fully committed to the Brexit she was promising to deliver.
Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said it was “staggering that even the prime minister isn’t convinced by the government’s approach to Brexit”.
Former Labour Europe minister Chris Bryant said her responses showed May “clearly doesn’t believe in Brexit in her heart of hearts, [which] makes her hard Brexit policy all the more irresponsible”.
Within the Tories, May is under pressure on all sides after a disastrous Conservative party conference speech and faltering talks with the EU.
While the hard Brexit supporters fear she is veering towards a relationship too close to the EU, the soft Brexit wing are concerned the government is putting more effort into preparing for the possibility of no deal being reached.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, said earlier on Tuesday that the EU and the UK may need to start planning for such a scenario if negotiations do not speed up.
He ruled out any chance of “sufficient progress” on the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border being made by the time of a council summit on 19 October, which would have allowed wider trade talks to begin, as originally planned.
In a significant shift in tone, Tusk also appeared to suggest that, should the impasse continue past Christmas, both sides might need to move into an emergency footing to address the consequences of failing to reach a deal.
Earlier on Tuesday, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, responded to May’s suggestion in the Commons on Monday that the “ball was in the EU’s court”, following a series of concessions offered in the prime minister’s Florence speech.
“Brexit is not a game. Don’t forget it,” Barnier said, as he emerged from a lunch with the UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, on the second day of the fifth round of negotiations.
Some Conservative Brexit supporters in the government have been pushing May to show she is serious about the prospect of walking away from the EU by committing money in the budget to preparations.
But Philip Hammond, the chancellor, made clear in an article for the Times that it would be irresponsible to put billions aside for a hard Brexit when the government is still trying to achieve a deal.
May was pressed on the issue of a no-deal situation in her LBC interview but struggled to answer the questions of what would happen in that scenario to EU citizens living in the UK.
When an EU citizen who has lived in the UK for 31 years asked three times for reassurances that she would retain her rights if there is no deal, May said: “We’ve looked at the rights of people staying here if we get a deal, that’s what we’re working at.
“What I’m going to say to Nina is, we will look at the arrangements to put in place if there is no deal. We are doing work on that at the moment. The government across the board is doing work on that.”
May has made an offer to Brussels to guarantee the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, which would be enforced by the British courts while taking EU law into account.
But the talks have stumbled over the issue because the EU wants the European court of justice to safeguard the rights of its citizens.
Asked why she could not just say she guaranteed they would be able to stay with the same rights if there is no deal, she said: “Well I’m going to get a bit technical here. There are certain rights that pertain to somebody that is an EU citizen here in the UK by virtue of being an EU citizen, things like the benefits that they’re able to access in relation to their home country and the UK.
“Some of those issues would fall away if there was no deal because there wouldn’t be an agreement between us and the EU. So we would have to look at those issues separately in a no-deal scenario.
“But my overall message is I want EU citizens to stay here in the UK and I want to be able to guarantee those rights to enable those people to stay. We’re not going to be throwing EU citizens who are currently here in the UK out of the UK in the future.”
Asked about what would happen to British citizens in EU countries, she said: “We don’t know what would happen to them. EU members states would have to consider what their approach would be.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said the lack of a guarantee was unacceptable and that May’s “chaotic handling of Brexit means no deal is a real risk”.
The LBC call-in got even worse for the prime minister when a Conservative member rang in to urge her to stop clinging on to power as her continued premiership would lead to a “guaranteed Corbyn win at the next election”.
“Can’t you see the only slim chance we have got of avoiding that is fresh leadership?” he asked. “And the longer you cling to power, unfortunately, the more you increase the certainty we’ll all be under the hard-left socialism of Corbyn.”
May said she wanted to lead the party into another election in 2022, saying she was “no quitter” and wanted to get on with delivering Brexit and her domestic agenda.
Asked about plots against her leadership, she laughed off the attempt to oust her by former party chairman Grant Shapps.
She said she had “parliamentary colleagues with a variety of views” but disagreements should be aired in private.
May also refused to say she was frustrated with Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, for undermining her leadership with his own interventions on how to carry out Brexit.
But she did not deny rumours that there will be a reshuffle within weeks, which could see him moved or demoted to another role.
Asked what Johnson would have to do to be sacked, she said: “Boris is foreign secretary and I appointed him. As with every other member of the cabinet, he agreed with the policy we developed and discussed in relation to Brexit that I set out in my speech in Florence.”
May’s position has been looking more precarious since the party conference, with a growing number of Tory MPs mulling the idea of replacing her with a caretaker leader to carry out Brexit.
It is understood senior Brexit backers in the government have been urging leave-supporting MPs to “hold the line” and refrain from publicly criticising her approach.
However, her equivocation over whether she would vote for Brexit is unlikely to go down well with Conservative Brexit supporters, who are already frustrated by the government’s decision to effectively submit to EU jurisdiction, budget payments and free movement during a two-year transition period.
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