Labour Raises Prospect of a Second Referendum on Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. opposition Labour Party plans to vote down Theresa May’s divorce agreement with the European Union, and sees a second referendum as a way of avoiding a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Labour’s Brexit policy-setter, Keir Starmer, set out what he called a “sequenced, structured,” strategy for the next few months in Parliament, when May is expected to put the Brexit deal she negotiates to lawmakers for approval. Labour will vote against the deal, and if it manages to defeat the government, the party will push for an election.

Starmer, who has slowly shifted the Labour Party’s Brexit policy over the last year, said he doesn’t know what the question should be in any second referendum. But an option to reverse Brexit should remain on the table, he told Bloomberg TV in an interview. “We’re ruling nothing out, and therefore not ruling out remain.”

Personally, he said he would vote to stay in if there was a second vote on staying in.

Starmer’s comments add to pressure building on May ahead of a showdown at her Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham next week. Not only has the EU rejected key parts of her Brexit proposal, she’s also struggling to win over Tory lawmakers pushing for a cleaner break from the bloc.

May doesn’t have a majority in Parliament so risks defeat if just a handful of Conservative lawmakers reject the deal she eventually signs. On a plane en route to New York, she stuck to her guns and said she would not change her plan for a Brexit.

Very Wrong

In a speech Tuesday at Labour’s annual conference, Starmer got a standing ovation from some delegates when he reiterated that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option.” The line wasn’t in the official script of his speech handed out to delegates.

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn later backed Starmer’s ad-lib after there was criticism from others in the party who want any referendum to be limited to the terms of the deal.

“Keir put that in because it’s what’s there in the motion,” Corbyn told Sky News. “We will challenge this Government. If they don’t meet our six tests, we will vote against it, and then we will take it from there.”

Labour Raises Prospect of a Second Referendum on Brexit

The government has “no credible plan for Brexit” and May isn’t on course to meet tests set by the Labour Party as a way of measuring whether it should back her deal, Starmer said.

“A Tory civil war that has gone on for years now threatens our future prosperity,” he said. “I’ve got a message for the prime minister. ‘If your party wants to tear itself apart, that’s fine, but you’re not taking our country with you.’”

While Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab accused Labour of “putting political calculation above the national interest,” it’s possible May could be helped by Starmer’s announcement.

Party fixers trying to bring rebellious Tory lawmakers into line will be able to warn them that voting alongside Labour lawmakers could threaten May’s government and increase the risk of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn taking over talks with Brussels.

Labour delegates in Liverpool debated a motion on Tuesday that would keep open the option of pushing for a second Brexit referendum if May refuses to start the process that would lead to a general election.

‘All Options’

“If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote,” the motion says. “If the government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from, they shouldn’t be afraid to put that deal to the public.”

John McDonnell, Labour’s economy spokesman, insisted on Monday that any referendum would be on the terms of the deal and would not offer voters the option to stay in the bloc, setting up an argument with delegates on Tuesday.

“We’ve said we’ll respect the referendum result,” McDonnell told Bloomberg TV. “We’ll campaign for a people’s vote and in that people’s vote they’ll be able to make a decision on the deal that the government has brought back.”

Starmer told a meeting on the margins of the conference on Tuesday afternoon that there is no rift with McDonnell, who he said had clarified his views. “The idea that there’s something between me and John McDonnell on this is just wrong,” he said.

Labour Rebels

There is no guarantee that all Labour lawmakers will back the party line and vote against May’s deal. While some, like Kate Hoey, are committed to Britain leaving the EU, others, like Lisa Nandy, say their constituents are desperate for certainty.

“There are thousands of people around the country whose jobs depend on having clarity,” Nandy told Sky News.

The party fought last year’s general election straddling the divide on Brexit and is acutely aware that it can’t risk alienating either side if it wants to win next time. Corbyn said on Sunday that 60 percent of Labour voters backed remain while 40 percent voted leave -- and he will need them all.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.