Labour is in talks with Conservative MPs on a parliamentary veto to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal, the shadow chancellor has revealed.
John McDonnell said Labour would not countenance a no-deal outcome, and that it would be disastrous for the UK to revert to World Trade Organisation rules “because the damage to the economy will be so great”. He said there was no majority in the House of Commons for allowing such an exit from the bloc.
Theresa May admitted last week that the government was spending £250m on contingency preparations in the event of a deal falling through. However, it is possible that MPs could stall a no-deal scenario by working across party lines to amend the landmark EU withdrawal bill.
One amendment stipulates that any Brexit deal must be approved by a separate act of parliament, which would give the House of Commons a binding vote on the final outcome.
The list of amendments to the bill currently runs to 300 spread across 70 pages, and the prime minister has had to delay debating the legislation on the floor of the Commons in an effort to head-off rebellions from anti-Brexit Tory MPs.
Outlining his strategy, Mr McDonnell told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t think there’s a majority for no deal. I think on a cross-party basis you’ll see in the debates in the coming week — the government will get the message, there will be a deal.”
“When we amend the legislation, which I think we will, I think there’s a majority to do that, to have a meaningful vote,” he said.
When asked whether Labour was talking to Tory MPs, the shadow chancellor said there were discussions going “right the way across the house”.
But Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said Mr McDonnell was “talking a lot of complete nonsense” by suggesting there was no support in the Commons for a no-deal route out of the EU.
“Where I fundamentally disagree with John McDonnell . . . is him saying we must do a deal in all circumstances,” the Tory Cabinet minister told the BBC.
“There is no serious business leader in this country who would enter a negotiation on the basis they’d accept the terms regardless of what they are. So of course we have to plan for an option where there is no deal. We don’t expect that, we’re not aiming for it and I don’t think that’s where we’re going to end up.”
He insisted he was optimistic about the prospect of reaching a trade agreement because it would be against the interest of member states for the UK to crash out with no deal.
“It would mean that producers, supermarkets bought more at home, that British farmers produced more, that they bought more from around the world and it would damage French producers and continental producers,” Mr Grayling said.
When challenged on whether that would also mean higher food prices for British consumers, he said: “Well, what we will do is grow more here and we’ll buy more from around the world. But of course that will mean bad news for continental farmers, and that’s why it won’t happen. Because it’s actually in their interest to reach a deal.”
He added that negotiations were where he expected them to be and insisted no one had believed they would be done in “half an hour”. “This was always going to be a long and difficult negotiation,” he said.
Downing Street said Mrs May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed the “importance of continued constructive progress” in the UK’s exit negotiations in an early morning telephone call on Sunday.