Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May’s first major Brexit meeting has ended with both sides hopeful of breaking the parliamentary logjam over the issue.
The Labour leader and Tory prime minister met in her Commons office on Wednesday for nearly two hours of talks in a bid to find a way through the impasse.
The talks came as Corbyn faced fresh pressure from his MPs to ensure whatever Labour agreed would include a pledge to put any deal to a fresh referendum.
At a Shadow Cabinet meeting following the talks, several senior frontbenchers backed a public vote in principle, but chair Ian Lavery warned the party would be “finished” if the leader backed one.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Today’s talks were constructive, with both sides showing flexibility and a commitment to bring the current Brexit uncertainty to a close.
“We have agreed a programme of work to ensure we deliver for the British people, protecting jobs and security.”
Corbyn confirmed that some progress had been made during his face-to-face talks with May.
“There hasn’t been as much change as I expected but we will have further discussions tomorrow to explore technical issues,” he said.
″I put forward the view from the Labour Party that we want to achieve a customs union with the EU, access to the Single Market and dynamic regulatory alignment, that is a guarantee of European regulations as a minimum on the environment, consumer and workers’ rights.
“I also raised the option of a public vote to prevent crashing out or leaving on a bad deal.”
However that form of words on a public vote was not as strong as some of his shadow ministers have been in recent weeks.
Tom Watson, Keir Starmer and others have stated the party should support a referendum on any Brexit plan, not just a ‘bad’ one.
And sources pointed out that Labour imposed a three-line whip recently to back the ‘Kyle-Wilson’ amendment which demanded a public vote on any Brexit plan.
Corbyn’s team at the talks included shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, shadow chief whip Nick Brown and shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.
For the government, May was accompanied by Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay, chief whip Julian Smith and senior aides.
HuffPost UK understands large chunks of the meeting were dominated by parliamentary procedural issues and party discipline demands discussed between both chief whips, as well as policy on Brexit itself.
May outlined her concerns about a second referendum but crucially did not rule one out as Corbyn, Brown and Starmer all made the case for a ‘confirmatory’ ballot, a source said.
The pair spent a lot of time discussing details of how a customs union would work, how May’s withdrawal agreement could be implemented and what link it had to the ‘political declaration’ on future UK-EU trade talks.
Fresh ‘technical’ talks will take place in the Cabinet Office in Whitehall on Thursday morning, after Brexit Question time ends in the Commons. Starmer, Barclay and David Lidington are expected to attend.
The ‘technical groups’ will stage a full day of intensive discussions, recognising the need for urgency, a government source said.
Many in Labour and even in the Tories have been struck by how open Lidington and May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell are privately to the idea of a referendum.
This week in Cabinet, even Chancellor Philip Hammond said he backed the idea of a ‘democratic event’, either an election or referendum to resolve the Brexit crisis.
The meeting was called at May’s request after the Cabinet agreed on Tuesday to make an unprecedented offer to the Opposition to work together in the national interest.
With just days to go before a crunch EU summit next Wednesday, parliament needs to agree its own Brexit plans to avoid crashing out with a no-deal exit.
May wants Corbyn to either agree a joint Brexit policy or to jointly agree to put a range of ‘Plan B’ alternatives before MPs.
“We have had constructive exploratory discussions about how to break the Brexit deadlock,” a Labour party spokesman said.
“We have agreed a programme of work between our teams to explore the scope for agreement.”
No.10 has made clear that the PM’s only ‘red line’ for the talks was that she would never revoke the Article 50 legal process which governs the UK’s exit from the EU.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry wrote a note to the shadow cabinet on Wednesday to say any Brexit deal should have a referendum attached.
“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,” she wrote.
“Any deal agreed by Parliament must be subject to a confirmatory public vote, and yes, the other option on the ballot must be Remain.”
However, a spokesman for Thornberry told HuffPost UK: “This was not a letter to MPs. It was a private note to members of the shadow cabinet, indicating Emily’s views on any proposed compromise deal that may be discussed this evening.
“It was written because she cannot be present in person for the discussion due to family reasons.”
During the Shadow Cabinet meeting, Lavery repeated his worries that backing a referendum would ‘split’ the party, though some present suggested he was heavily outnumbered. No decisions were taken.
The senior figures in the party agreed the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) had to be regularly updated through the process. Corbyn sent a note to all his MPs and a thorough debate will be held at the weekly PLP meeting on Monday.
“The general approach was we should tread carefully and not rush. The PLP will play a key role and have to be brought with us. Theresa May is blowing up her own party by not consulting her MPs, we won’t make the same mistake,” one key figure said.
The party’s membership is overwhelmingly in favour of a second Brexit referendum, as set out in its carefully worded policy passed at its conference last year.
Corbyn is under huge pressure to make a condition of his agreement a ‘People’s Vote’ or a confirmatory referendum on May’s deal.
Asked later about whether a referendum on the deal should be on the table Corbyn said there was “no deal offered” but suggested he raised the issue of a public vote with May.
He said: “I said this is the policy of our party, that we would want to pursue the option of a public vote to prevent crashing out or to prevent leaving with a bad deal.
“There was no agreement reached on that, we just put it there as one of the issues that the Labour Party conference voted on last year.”
Earlier, Corbyn’s spokesman said: “Our policy is to support a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a no deal outcome.”
But he suggested that agreement on the issue was not a precondition of the talks.
However, other issues such as membership of a customs union and regulatory alignment and workers’ rights would be raised by the Labour leader.
The issue of a ‘public vote’ has divided shadow frontbenchers and backbenchers whose seats are in areas where Labour supporters voted ‘Leave’ in big numbers in the 2016 referendum.
Deputy leader Tom Watson is a big backer of a new vote and joined the million-strong anti-Brexit march in London last month.
But others in the shadow cabinet are more sceptical, including party chair Ian Lavery and Long-Bailey.
Margaret Beckett, who has led a cross-party amendment for a second referendum, said Corbyn should force May to discuss the issue.
The limits on May’s own position were underlined on Wednesday evening.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox, whose job of striking trade deals across the world will be effectively made redundant if May agrees to Corbyn’s demand for a customs union, signalled his opposition to any such concession.
Asked if the UK would still have an independent trade policy after Brexit as he left a meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Fox told HuffPost UK: “What does it say in our manifesto?”
Nicola Sturgeon, who met Corbyn beforehand and then held her own meeting with May, revealed that the Labour leader would drive a hard bargain.