Jeremy Corbyn is closer than ever to supporting a second referendum

While an official change in the party’s stance isn’t a foregone conclusion, Labour’s Leave-supporting MPs are right to be nervous.

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Has Jeremy Corbyn finally joined the campaign for a second referendum? That’s the conclusion some have drawn from his reaction to Labour’s poor showing in the European elections.

In the wake of results that saw Labour lose ground to Remain parties just about everywhere – most alarmingly in Scotland and Wales – Corbyn is under increasing pressure to make a shift that he and his inner circle have hitherto resisted: committing to a new public vote on any Brexit deal.

Last night Corbyn appeared to join a succession of shadow cabinet ministers, most notably John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, who have suggested that an unambiguous commitment to a second referendum is the only way to stem the flow of voters to the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP.

In an email to an increasingly restive parliamentary party last night, Corbyn said that only “going back to the people through a general election or a public vote” could resolve the impasse at Westminster. So far, so familiar, and, for many MPs, so infuriating. But notably, Corbyn stressed he was willing to support a public vote “on any deal”.

That formulation has long been favoured by Remainers in the shadow cabinet, and, though by no means unequivocal, represents a much stronger endorsement than Corbyn – who more often than not frames a fresh plebiscite as a device to stop a no deal – has previously offered.

But is it strong enough? What Corbyn hasn’t offered, MPs grumble, is an admission that a general election – the leadership’s clear preference – is now probably unattainable, as McDonnell did yesterday. Nor has he guaranteed that Remain would be both on the ballot paper and adopted as Labour’s position.

The apparent gulf between the leader and shadow chancellor is attracting much hopeful comment from those Labour MPs who favour of a change of policy. But it would be wrong to read McDonnell’s interventions as an insurrectionist move. At fraught times like this, he is best understood as Corbyn’s navvy: the guy who does the arduous work of breaking rocky political ground so that his leader can sail painlessly to through to the same position.

It isn’t a foregone conclusion that Corbyn will follow. The leadership’s electoral priority has always been to win back Leave-voting seats in the North and Midlands – Mansfield being the most totemic. Opponents of a second referendum, chief among them Len McCluskey, Ian Lavery and Lisa Nandy, are making their case with just as much force as its supporters. They say that Labour should deliver a compromise, unite the country, and move on.

Their argument chimes with the thinking of Corbyn’s closest allies but has been fundamentally weakened by the European results. Until now, opponents of a new vote could argue that despite the clamour for a second referendum from Remainers in the country, they would ultimately stop short of voting for other parties. It’s now clear, as Peter Mandelson nearly said, that those voters have somewhere else to go. The balance of risks has shifted.

So while Corbyn is not quite where Remainers would like him to be yet, those MPs who favour some sort of deal over a referendum are right to be alarmed: he is heading, perhaps inexorably, in that direction.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.