Labour's second referendum sceptics have bigger worries than Ian Lavery's cybersecurity

A Boris Johnson premiership may help reverse the party’s loss of Remain voters. But what if it doesn't?

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Ian Lavery, Labour's party chairman and the MP for Wansbeck, has blamed a hacker for a now-deleted social media post in which he said that he fears that Labour will soon move to a position of supporting a second Brexit referendum – and that the real goal of supporters of a second referendum is to revoke Article 50, rather than to settle the Brexit question one way or another. 

It seems like an odd use of someone’s time to hack an MP’s account in order to publish an opinion entirely in keeping with their public and private pronouncements on an issue, but it takes all sorts to make a world. I, for instance, only ever bet small sums of money even on certain things.

Lavery’s opposition to Labour's softened Brexit position is well-known: he disobeyed the party’s whip by opposing a second referendum and had written his resignation letter in the expectation he would be sacked. He retains his job thanks only to Jeremy Corbyn’s decision not to accept his resignation. Lavery regularly warns of the dangers of holding a second referendum in shadow cabinet and recently wrote a punchy Guardian article on the same topic.

It is well known that he and other opponents of a second referendum see the issue as an anti-Brexit Trojan Horse that will imperil their own seats and also any hope of a Corbyn-led government. If Labour were to unambiguously back a second referendum, Lavery is one of several in the shadow cabinet who would likely resign as a result. This tweet changes Labour’s internal politics

So if Lavery hasn’t been hacked, he is telling the world’s silliest and most pointless fib. In any case, what really matters is that Labour’s own internal Brexit debate is set to be reignited over the coming weeks.

The party’s big problem is that, as the shadow cabinet were told this morning, until March of this year, their Brexit strategy, as undesirable as it may have been from a Remainer perspective, was doing pretty well for them. Labour were holding onto most of their 2017 electoral coalition of Remain and Leave voters. 

But the strategy began to come undone during March and the gravitation of voters away from Labour is not easy to resolve. According to a briefing received by the shadow cabinet this morning, they are losing votes in a 2:1:1 ratio to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Brexit Party. It is obviously a bigger problem that, for every vote that Labour lose to the Brexit Party, they are losing three to the parties of Remain, but it is not a non-trivial problem that they are losing votes to the Brexit Party as well.

So what’s left? If Labour are lucky, Boris Johnson’s anticipated premiership could solve the problem for them: while he is attractive to Leave voters he is repellent to Remain ones, and that may make it easier for Labour to pull back Remain voters.

Labour’s Remainers are obviously keen to strike now while the case for a second referendum is strong: if a Johnson leadership reverses the flow of Remain votes away from Labour then the party’s current position might once again become the best option. The problem for Lavery and MPs who agree with them is: what if it doesn’t?

Their difficulty is that while there are enough of them to frustrate the various attempts to delay or stop Brexit, there aren’t enough of them to pass any Brexit deal – or, at least, there aren’t enough who are willing to risk their own positions by doing so. That only 26 Labour MPs were willing to put their name to a supportive letter to Corbyn urging him not to change position highlights that there aren’t quite enough Labour MPs to pass the withdrawal agreement as it stands.

And that’s the biggest problem for Labour’s referendum sceptics: the supporters of a second referendum, whether they are reluctant converts like Jenny Chapman, or devoted pro-Europeans like Ben Bradshaw, have a concrete proposal. But Labour’s hold-outs passed up their three opportunities to vote for the deal and are not guaranteed to get a fourth.

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.