No, John McDonnell isn't changing Labour policy on Brexit

The Shadow Chancellor is preparing the ground – but not necessarily for another referendum.

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John McDonnell has set tongues wagging with an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, in which he appeared to suggest that another referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was “inevitable”. Is the Labour leadership moving towards to a harder Remain position?

Well, in one sense, yes, but in a much more important sense: no. Here’s what McDonnell said in full:

“We want a deal that will protect jobs and the economy. If we can't achieve that – the government can't achieve that – we should have a general election, but that's very difficult to do because of the nature of the legislation that David Cameron brought forward.

“If that's not possible, we'll be calling upon the government then to join us in a public vote. It's difficult to judge each stage, but that's the sequence I think that we'll inevitably go through over this period.”

This is essentially just a recitation of what any good-faith reading of the Labour party’s position as set out at their conference would tell you: that Labour’s first priority is to secure a general election, and failing that a vote on the deal. (The matter of whether that would be a vote between the deal and a no deal exit, a three-way referendum with an option to Remain, or a vote between Theresa May’s deal and staying in the European Union is left open.) So what is McDonnell up to here?

Remember that McDonnell sees a big part of his job as doing interviews to prepare the ground for the party to make big or politically risky shifts. It was McDonnell who, in his interviews before Labour conference, set out the compromise position that Jeremy Corbyn might be willing to accept on the party’s support for another deal. Corbyn does not like doing frequent interviews and performs poorly when he has to take a line he doesn’t wholly believe in, which makes him ill-suited to this role – but it is one that the shadow chancellor has taken on with gusto.

The truth that almost everyone around the inner circle of the Corbyn project accepts is that. while it is theoretically possible that Labour will be able to trigger an early election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, it is very, very unlikely that will actually happen before Brexit. To trigger an election, the government needs to lose not one but two votes of confidence in succession. As the DUP is still for the moment on side, the government has a parliamentary majority of 14, and there is no prospect of seven Conservatives voting to bring about an early election. Both the support of the DUP and the willingness of Conservative MPs to vote for the end of their own government could change, but it is no likely to happen this side of 29 March 2019, when the United Kingdom is set to formally leave the European Union.

What happens then? Well, Labour’s policy is set and is very clear: it would then seek another referendum. But the difficulty is that it is even more difficult to see how the Labour party can get a second referendum than it is to see how they can get another election. Since the Brexit vote, more than 100 Labour MPs have rebelled against the party’s Brexit policy, and 25 of those MPs have done so to get a harder Brexit than the one being offered by Jeremy Corbyn. Of those MPs, 16 of them even rebelled on the EEA amendment, when the party’s official position was to abstain and there was no prospect at all of it passing. The idea that those 16 MPs would not all vote against a second referendum is for the birds.

To defeat the government, you need seven rebels net – so on any given issue, the number of Conservative rebels has to equal the number of Labour rebels plus seven. That means that even to overcome Labour’s EEA rebels you would need 21 Conservative MPs to vote for another referendum. There are just nine declared supporters of a second referendum on the Conservative benches, and only 14 Conservative Remainers have said they will vote against the withdrawal agreement. And the reality is that there would be far more than 16 Labour rebels. Absent a shift in the politics of the Conservative Party, it is very, very difficult to get to a position where a second referendum can pass the Commons. It is not impossible – but it is also not remotely likely.

What is far more likely is a situation where Parliament has voted down the withdrawal agreement, voted to prevent an early election and voted against a second referendum. Remember that no deal is the default option, and we don’t yet know how the Article 50 revocation process will work, pending the judgement of the European Court of Justice. To avoid No Deal, Parliament not only has to vote in favour of the withdrawal agreement in the meaningful vote, but to pass the withdrawal bill into law. So you could have a situation in which Labour MPs not only have to vote with the government once to prevent a no-deal exit, but on multiple occasions.

That’s a far more politically painful and dangerous position for the Labour party – don’t forget most of their voters, even in seats that overall voted to Leave, tended to vote Remain. The options are politically fraught: if no deal looks likely the Labour leadership won’t be able to prevent at least some of its MPs voting with the government to stop a no deal. It’s a bad look to be holding out support at a point when it could well be the withdrawal agreement or the cliff edge. It’s also a bad look to vote to facilitate Brexit.

McDonnell knows all that full well. The most important thing to understand about his positioning and his public remarks is his sense of what needs to be said and done to make sure that, in that event, Labour can make it through without suffering fatal damage to its hopes at the next election.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.