Corbyn Bids to Heal Labour Brexit Split With Focus on Inequality

(Bloomberg) -- Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn took his Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer 185 miles (300 kilometers) north of London in a bid to present a united front over the U.K.’s departure from the European Union.

In a speech in Wakefield calling for a general election to solve government and parliamentary paralysis on Brexit, Corbyn said Labour must focus on the “real division” in British society, which he said wasn’t between leaving or staying in the EU, but between the rich and those left poorer by nine years of austerity.

He insisted that there was no split with Starmer, who told lawmakers on Wednesday that a request to delay Britain’s departure from the EU “may well be inevitable” and who has, in public statements, often appeared more open than Corbyn to the idea of a second referendum to end the Brexit impasse.

Starmer had merely been stating “the practicalities of negotiation,” Corbyn said. If the Labour Party was able to force a general election before Brexit day and then won it, the new government would be “right against the clock” to discuss a new deal with Brussels, he said.

But the conciliatory tone will likely have done little to paper over the Labour cracks on Brexit. Corbyn refused to be drawn on when he’ll move a vote of no confidence in the government, which party members have been calling for to set in motion Labour’s agreed policy of pursuing a general election, and another referendum only if that effort fails.

‘Best Chance’

“We will move a motion of no confidence in the government at the time we think there’s the best chance of it passing,” Corbyn said.

Labour lawmakers were frustrated before Christmas when Corbyn failed to force a confidence vote after Prime Minister Theresa May abandoned a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal. That frustration is turning to anger as their leader seems in no hurry to move if, as expected, May’s agreement with the EU is rejected by lawmakers next Tuesday.

A confidence motion has little chance of success anyway, because Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has pledged to back May’s minority government and Conservatives are unlikely to break ranks to help Corbyn.

Still, Corbyn is holding back to avoid a decision on whether to formally back a second referendum on Brexit. A lifelong Euroskeptic, he’s wary of alienating voters -- particularly in the north of England -- who backed leaving the EU in 2016. Delaying a confidence vote leaves less time to pivot to calling for another referendum before Brexit day on March 29.

“The whole point of the speech I made today is we can bring communities together with a policy of social justice, a policy of investment, a policy of bringing people together,” he said. “We’ll vote against Theresa May’s deal on Tuesday, and we’ll then be calling for a general election.”

He just didn’t say exactly when. With Labour members increasingly clamoring for another Brexit vote, it’s not clear how much longer he can hold off.

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