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14 October 2019

Why support for a second Brexit referendum is rising fast among Labour MPs

Shadow business secretary and Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey is the latest major figure to back a new public vote. 

By Stephen Bush

The SNP is in Aberdeen for its conference, but the eyes of the press are on the Queen’s Speech in London, which will kick off the new parliamentary session.

It will be a particularly strange affair. The Conservative government has no majority and the Queen’s Speech is a major opportunity for Boris Johnson’s parliamentary opponents to frustrate him and place further limitations on the executive’s ability to negotiate Brexit without involving parliament in the process.

But the major short-term effect of Johnson’s relatively successful bilateral with Leo Varadkar is that the 21 former Conservatives whose priority is to avoid a no-deal Brexit are now largely of the view that they don’t need to make further moves to force Downing Street to behave itself – which means that the possibility that the speech will be voted down or amended in a way that causes the government pain has receded.

So instead what we’re left with is a programme for government that is, in reality, a platform for Boris Johnson’s election campaign. But when will the election be? Jeremy Corbyn’s position remains that the contest must happen as soon as the Brexit extension is in place, while Johnson’s is, of course, that he wanted it to happen before the extension was signed, sealed or delivered.

But there is a changing mood within the Parliamentary Labour Party in particular – support for a second referendum has moved from being the position of a plurality of the parliamentary party to a majority, and my impression from conversations this morning is that it is on its way to becoming the position of an overwhelming majority. Rebecca Long-Bailey, seen as one of the shadow cabinet’s biggest critics of a second referendum policy, has become the latest big name to weigh in behind it.

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In that case, it might be about moving into a position necessary to fight and win a leadership election, but it does, equally, reflect a journey that a lot of the PLP is on. But there remains a hardcore of 19 Labour MPs – the ones who sign letters calling for a deal, who are willing to talk publicly about voting against a referendum – who are opposed.

What has happened is that in the past, we used to know that there were 29 Labour MPs who had explicitly voted against efforts to stop or soften Brexit even when the Labour leadership whipped in favour of them, and that there was a large group of Labour MPs who privately agreed with them. Essentially, the PLP’s referendum critics could be split into two groups “Caroline Flint” and “Labour MPs who go to bed every night grateful that Caroline Flint exists and is standing up for what they secretly believe in”. Now that second group has either decided to come out against a referendum or has either done a Gareth Snell and is finally speaking up for what they want out of Brexit, or has quietly decided that it can live with a referendum.

Why? There are two forces at work. The first is the electoral success of the Liberal Democrats. Even in Leave constituencies, most Labour MPs’ actual voters are more Remain than Leave and the average Labour MP has more to fear from a Liberal Democrat revival than the success of the Brexit Party. While that force is particularly acute among Labour MPs it is also sharpening the minds of some Conservatives. The second is the political success of Nigel Farage in painting Theresa May’s deal as Brexit in name only, which has made several Labour MPs conclude that whatever happens with Brexit, the United Kingdom will be left with a betrayal narrative and they might as well try and keep the UK in the EU.

The problem is that an emerging consensus in the Parliamentary Labour Party isn’t the same as an emerging consensus in parliament as a whole. While the prospects for a referendum in this parliament are improving, there is still, for the moment, a narrow majority to resist one. That means that SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s preferred route – of an election now and a referendum later – may still be the most likely outcome of the next week.