Tony Blair sticks with Labour but sees more joining UK rebel group

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in London. (Bloomberg pic)

LONDON: Tony Blair insisted he has no plans to quit the UK Labour Party as he praised the newly formed Independent Group of breakaway members of Parliament.

The former UK prime minister said he had sympathy for the eight Labour lawmakers and three Conservatives who resigned from their parties last month, some citing disagreements over Brexit. But he said he had no intention of switching allegiance.

“I’m staying in the Labour Party. I’ve been in the Labour Party for over 40 years, I led it for 13 years, I was the longest-serving Labour prime minister, I’m deeply attached to the Labour Party,” he said on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday. “But do I sympathize with what they have done? Yes, I do. I think they’re courageous in having done it.”

Blair went on to predict that more will leave to join the group. A Politico poll last week found that a quarter of voters – including almost a third identified as Labour supporters – would consider backing the new group in an election.

“I think it’s absolutely inevitable that if you put the choice before the country – hard Brexit Tory party, hard-left Labour Party – you leave that amount of fertile territory open, someone is going to cultivate it,” said Blair, a leading advocate of a second Brexit referendum.

The walkout by the anti-Brexit MPs has thrown British politics into further turmoil just weeks before the UK is due to leave the European Union. With the Mar 29 deadline approaching, Prime Minister Theresa May is still battling to find a deal with the EU that’s acceptable to British lawmakers after her original agreement was rejected in a crushing defeat in January.

May has promised to put a revised deal to Parliament by Mar 12 at the latest, and if that is rejected lawmakers will be offered votes on whether to leave the EU without a deal or to delay Brexit.

The prime minister this weekend received what is being seen as an olive branch from pro-Brexit hardliners in her Conservative Party.

A document drafted by the European Research Group cites three tests that must be met in order to win their support for her deal, according to the Sunday Times.

They demand a legally binding clause that “unambiguously overrides” the text of the withdrawal agreement; stronger language that the so-called Irish border backstop will be temporary; and a “clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail.”

Speaking on the Marr show, Trade Secretary Liam Fox welcomed the proposal as a “genuine attempt to map out common ground,” though there is scepticism that the EU would agree to any of the concessions.

In a separate development, Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, expressed optimism that a breakthrough on the Irish backstop issue is near.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Brady said the country is “tired of vacillation and delay” and urges colleagues to “pull together behind the prime minister and help her to deliver our exit from the European Union on Mar 29,” providing the “right compromise is offered.”