London, United Kingdom – Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Monday the Labour Party is ready to back calls for a second Brexit referendum to “prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country”.
This marks a shift in Labour’s Brexit stance, which has been ambiguous in its support for a second referendum for fear of alienating the minority of Labour constituencies that voted to leave, particularly in the north of England.
The move was welcomed by some MPs who want Britain to remain in the European Union. It will also be seen as good news by Labour supporters who have been campaigning for a “people’s vote” while growing disillusioned with what they see as the party’s feeble handling of Brexit.
Nearly 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
What did Corbyn say?
The Labour leader said the party would “put forward or back” an amendment supporting a people’s vote should parliament fail to pass Labour’s alternative plan, which will be put to a vote in the House of Commons this week. The plan is likely to be defeated.
Why the shift?
Corbyn is trying to hold his party together.
Nine Labour MPs have defected over the party’s Brexit policy as well as alleged anti-Semitism. Eight joined a newly-formed Independent Group comprising both Labour and Conservative MPs. The group, which is opposed to leaving the EU without a deal and backs a second referendum, met for the first time on Monday.
Corbyn’s move came as Prime Minister Theresa May announced yet another deferral on a “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal. It was due for this week and is now scheduled to take place by March 12 – just two weeks before the UK is due to leave the EU.
To stem a rebellion within her party, May is also likely to promise MPs who are eager to rule out a no deal that they will have the chance to vote for a two-month extension of Article 50 in a fortnight, should she fail to reach a deal by then.
Meanwhile, the EU, which has been firm in its refusal to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, signalled it is also eager to avoid a no deal, with European Council President Donald Tusk saying on Monday that “an extension would be a rational solution” in light of the current situation.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw warned last week that the trickle of defecting MPs could “become a flood” if Corbyn failed to deliver on the party’s conference policy for a second Brexit referendum.
What was Labour’s Brexit stance before?
At the party’s annual conference last autumn, Labour agreed to campaign for a people’s vote should it fail to secure a general election.
But Corbyn lost his bid to remove May from power after the prime minister won a no-confidence vote, just a day after a resounding defeat on her Brexit deal in January.
As the prime minister headed back to Brussels with a parliamentary mandate to renegotiate the agreement, Corbyn put forward Labour’s five demands for Brexit.
These would keep the UK more closely bound to the EU than May’s deal. They include a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union, close alignment with the single market and on rights and protections, participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, and more guarantees on security arrangements.
The Labour leader will put his Brexit plan to parliament this week by tabling an amendment to the PM’s Brexit motion. The party also said it would support a proposal to delay Brexit if the prime minister can’t get her deal approved by March 13.
The round of voting on March 12 is also when a possible referendum amendment is expected to be put forward.
Will there be a second referendum, and what would Britons be voting on?
In a briefing to its MPs on Monday, Labour said the options for a new referendum should allow voters to choose between a credible leave deal or remain.
The party would not support no deal as an option. However, these would ultimately have to be decided by parliament.
But even if Labour backs a second referendum, it is not clear that there is a parliament majority. There are more Labour MPs opposed to it, compared with Conservatives who support it. The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats would support a second vote.
Any plan for another referendum would require an official request to the EU to extend negotiations to make time for it to be organised – something the EU is likely to grant.
But the shift could also push the hard Brexiteer, eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party towards voting for May’s deal, fearing that a long delay and the prospect of a new vote could mean reversing the result of the 2016 referendum.
In short, it doesn’t mean that a referendum is actually going to happen.
“Both politically and procedurally, the conditions that apply make it unlikely that [a second referendum] is going to go through the House of Commons,” John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research, told Al Jazeera.
“If you have to get this through the House you have to make it more attractive to leave voters, and Labour have done the opposite,” Curtice added.