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The new catchphrase that John McDonnell hopes will keep Britain in Europe

The shadow chancellor's gambit could prove decisive. 

By Stephen Bush

John McDonnell has a new catchphrase: “Tory Brexit”.

It may sound uncomfortably close to the name of a new character in Star Wars but it’s what McDonnell and his team believe is the best route to turn Labour voters out for a Remain vote in the coming referendum.

Shadow ministers and Labour MPs are increasingly worried that Labour voters don’t know what the party’s stance on the referendum is – and even more troublingly, they don’t much care. That much of the media has covered the contest largely through the prism of the Conservative succession has only made matters worse. The government’s message about the dangers of Brexit, too, are calibrated towards the concerns of Tory voters: house prices, security, and the economy.

As I write in this week’s New Statesman, Vote Leave, the official campaign to secure a Brexit vote on 23 June, has long known that the referendum will be won and lost among Labour voters, hence their early focus on putting more money into the National Health Service and the dangers of the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP).  

Vote Leave have also, quietly and effectively, been putting it about that a Brexit vote would allow fairer immigration rules for non-European migrants, something that, I’m told, is beginning to make itself felt among Labour voters who have relatives in Africa and from the Indian subcontinent in particular. It is families from these nations that have felt the biggest effects of Theresa May’s failed attempts to meet the government’s net migration target, with even short trips to attend weddings, funerals or graduations falling foul of the Home Office.

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McDonnell’s “Tory Brexit” line is intended to defuse those lines of attack. As one aide puts it, “the idea you can get away from TTIP by leaving Europe under a Tory government – it’s nonsense. You’d have TTIP max”. Similarly, the party will push back in the minority press against the idea that a Leave vote negotiated by a Conservative Prime Minister to the right of David Cameron would be more liberal on migration from outside Europe after Brexit, with Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, to play a big role in that enterprise.

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(It also has the added bonus of keeping open the idea that Brexit under a leftwing government mightn’t always be the worst thing in the world, which, depending on your perspective, either defangs the minority of Labour politicians who are pro-Brexit, or allows McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn  to keep the party united while not closing the door on supporting a Leave vote at a later date. Either way, it’s canny politics.)

Will it work? The fear for Remain is that Vote Leave have a strong message to get their voters out, though the Remain campaign are confident that they are out-organising the Leave campaign on the ground. The fear of an unmuzzled Conservative party may prove decisive in getting Labour voters to the polls on 23 June.