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22 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

Should Jeremy Corbyn back a second EU referendum on the final terms of Brexit?

In the event of an early election, what would be Labour’s Brexit position?

By Stephen Bush

Guess who’s back? Tony Blair‘s Institute for Global Change has weighed up the Conservatives’ two preferred options for customs after we leave the European Union and found them both wanting. But that’s not the only thing that Labour’s only living election winner is finding fault with: he also has a harsh word or three for Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy.

Corbyn has been left with “the worst of all worlds”, Blair says: neither a pure anti-Brexit party but, thanks to Labour’s decision to come out in favour of the staying in the customs, neither a pure pro-Brexit party. Remain voters have also “cottoned on” to Labour’s equivocal position and are “losing faith” in the opposition as a result.

His solution? Labour should say “we accepted the referendum verdict; we gave the government the opportunity to negotiate a good deal; it is now apparent they can’t; it is equally apparent that this is not only because of division and incompetence but because there is no resolution to the dilemma; therefore, we reject the deal but you, the British people, should have the final decision. You began Brexit, you mandated the negotiation and you should decide how it ends.” In other words, a referendum on whatever deal emerges from the end of the Brexit process.

Is he right? On the limitations of the customs partnership or the maximum facilitation models, certainly. On the matter of Labour’s electoral appeal, it’s too early to say.

That Labour do less well among Leave voters than Remain voters is well known. As to whether Remain voters are beginning to lose faith in Jeremy Corbyn, that’s less clear. That Labour failed to wipe out the Greens in the local elections may be a sign of that – if the Liberal Democrats have a good showing in Lewisham East it may be another. So, it’s possible but not certain that Remainers are beginning to worry about Labour’s equivocal position.

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What would worry me, were I in Team Corbyn’s shoes, is: what’s the Brexit position in the event of an early election forced by Conservative division over Brexit, and what’s the Brexit position in the event of a meaningful vote? And, looking further ahead, what’s the Brexit position in a general election against the backdrop of a prolonged transition? How can that be reconciled with the leadership’s desire to free itself from the reach of European Court of Justice, and the desire among a minority of Labour backbenchers to free themselves from the free movement of people?

And you can see how, in that situation, a form of words that backs the referendum outcome but criticises the Conservative terms and throws the decision over to the public again becomes Labour’s best way of keeping all of those groups together in 2022. It’s easy to see how it becomes the best option for Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s less clear how a referendum on the terms of exit favours committed Remainers. In a referendum re-run, in addition to the Eurosceptic headwinds from the right-wing press, Remainers would have to reckon with a Conservative Party that would speak with a largely pro-Leave voice, an embolded Eurosceptic tendency in Labour that is now strong and confident enough to be outwardly Eurosceptic as opposed to merely unhelpful, and a series of comments about the immediate economic consequences of Brexit that did not bear out in reality. All that, plus, as the snap election showed us, voters tend to be less sympathetic to the side they blame for re-opening a question they had thought settled.

So while a vote on the deal, a #finalsay or whatever you want to call it might end up being helpful for Jeremy Corbyn – Remainers should think carefully about re-opening a battle that, as it stands, they are in no condition to win and could get a considerably worse result than that of 2016.

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