Keir Starmer, U.K. exiting the European Union spokesman for the opposition Labour party (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Labour Rules Out Second Brexit Referendum as May Heads to Wales

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s opposition Labour Party effectively extinguished all prospect of a second referendum on Britain’s European Union membership as Prime Minister Theresa May headed for Wales, where polling suggests she’ll win most of the seats for the first time in more than 150 years.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, offered to soften the Brexit blow by immediately guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens to stay in the country if Labour wins the June 8 snap election. In Wales, where May stands a good chance of ending Labour’s dominance, the premier will make the case that a vote for her will strengthen her hand in negotiations.

In an election haunted by the ghost of Brexit, Labour’s latest outline will come as a blow to the 48 percent who voted to remain in the bloc and are unsure whether their vote can even matter given May’s crushing advantage in the polls. With EU negotiators hardening their positions on sensitive topics such as the rights of citizens and voter fatigue setting in, May is seizing on a narrow window of opportunity to consolidate power before negotiations begin.

Trailing by 20 percentage points in the polls, Labour is struggling to come up with at strategy to stem what could be a landslide victory for May. Starmer said the party “genuinely accepts the outcome of the referendum” -- a concession that may drive those who want to reverse course into the arms of the more pro-EU Liberal Democrats.

Realistic Goals

Instead, Labour will focus on trying to keep the benefits of the single market and customs union -- two things May has indicated she’s prepared to give up.

Starmer described how his ideal Brexit would unfold. After Britain leaves in 2019, there would be a transitional period -- something eagerly wanted by financial services especially. That would mean that a final deal would take shape in five to six years from now.

“At that stage, we would have left the EU three or four years earlier, and therefore the second-referendum argument simply doesn’t hold water,” he said in a speech in London.

The premier, for her part, was in Wales on Tuesday for a series of campaign events in seats the Tories feel they can win. Wales, a Labour stronghold, voted for Brexit in last year’s referendum, even though it has been a major beneficiary of EU funds. 

A poll on Monday signaled that Wales, which like Scotland has a semi-autonomous legislature, might deliver another surprise in the June election. The Conservatives have 40 percent support, compared with 30 percent for Labour, enough to take 21 of the 40 Welsh seats in the U.K. Parliament, according to the YouGov Plc poll for ITV Wales.

Tribal Politics

“This election is not about the kind of tribal politics that has held sway in Wales and elsewhere for many years,” May said in an article for the Western Mail newspaper. “It is an opportunity to provide this United Kingdom with the strong and stable leadership it needs to see us through Brexit and beyond.”

Some nationwide polls have put the Tories on double the proportion of the vote as Labour, leaving Jeremy Corbyn’s party facing the lowest share of the vote in a century. The party has struggled to come up with a coherent message on Brexit, with opposing views within the party on immigration, the issue May herself has highlighted as the reason why most Britons voted for Brexit.

That is a fact that has become apparent to Labour, fighting to stop Tory gains in areas that represent the Brexit heartland, once traditionally safe seats for a party historically associated with the working class in the industrial north.

“We recognize that immigration rules will have to change as we exit the EU, but we do not believe that immigration should be the overarching priority," Starmer said.