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25 September 2018

Would Labour extend Article 50?

It isn’t party policy, but Emily Thornberry and Len McCluskey have said the two-year negotiating period should be extended – meaning the UK would stay in the EU beyond March 2019.

By Patrick Maguire

Brexit day is six months away, and, as Stephen Kinnock told the Labour conference fringe this morning, negotiations with the EU have entered “squeaky bum time”.

Theresa May has very little time left to broker a deal with Brussels and have it ratified by parliament and the EU member states. The interruption of a general election campaign – Labour’s preference for resolving the impasse – would eat up so much as to make it impossible.

The logical conclusion, then, would be that a Labour government would have to at the very least seek an extension to the Article 50 process (which can only be done at the request of Britain, and with the unanimous approval of the EU27).

Emily Thornberry became the first frontbencher to articulate that logic this afternoon (Keir Starmer refused to rule out an extension this morning). Addressing a Times fringe event, the shadow foreign secretary said that Brexit was impossible “in current circumstances” and said a Labour should fight a general election with a policy of extending Article 50. 

“In our manifesto we should say we will abide by the result of the referendum, we cannot obviously leave in current circumstances, we need to extend Article 50 and – let me pre-empt your next question – I don’t know how long that would take,” she said.

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Len McCluskey made the same argument on Sunday. “The only way out of this is a general election,” he said at an event hosted by Politico. “I believe a general election would return Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. Article 50 could be extended and we would then cut a deal, a deal that would satisfy the 48 percent and the 52 percent.”

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There is of course no guarantee that an extension would be granted, though it would arguably be in the EU’s interests to do so. The domestic politics of delaying Brexit, albeit in order to make it work, could be equally fraught for Labour and would face resistance from some of its MPs (especially those in leave-majority seats in the North and Midlands). 

But an extension is the inevitable destination if you follow Labour’s demands for another election to their logical end-point. A source close to Jeremy Corbyn denies it is party policy. The problem for the leader’s office, however, is that frontbenchers spinning the official line on a new election will find it difficult not to talk as if it is.