What's Tom Watson plotting over Brexit?

Labour's deputy leader knows what he's asking for is unlikely. So why's he doing it? 


Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What will be the impact of Tom Watson’s speech this morning, calling for a second referendum before a general election?

In a speech in London, Labour’s Deputy Leader made a fresh bid to Remainers, calling on his party to “unequivocally back Remain” in a fresh public vote on Brexit.

Firstly, even Watson himself knows that a second referendum before a public vote is highly unlikely, as he conceded during the speech, commenting that an autumn general election seems inevitable, although "that does not make it desirable".  

Far from seriously increasing the chances of a second referendum soon, Watson’s intervention is an unashamed pitch for Remain votes in the inevitable autumn election, responding to the threat of the Liberal Demcorats, who yesterday upped their own pitch to Remainers, by indicating they would revoke article 50 if they won a majority.

Sources close to Jeremy Corbyn are frustrated by the move, suggesting that Watson’s speech is simply an attempt to undermine Corbyn, undoing the effects of his leadership in uniting opposition parties to successfully prevent No Deal. Other figures in the party dismiss it simply as “virtue-signalling for members” and a "distraction". 

Watson will hope that his intervention will remind Remainers that they have a home in Labour, as well as pressurising the leadership to back Remain if a referendum were to happen (other Shadow Cabinet members have already said they will campaign for Remain, but Corbyn is unlikely to state a position on the issue, and is expected to give cabinet members a free vote on the issue.)

In practice, however, the move may backfire: after weeks of a rare unity in Brexit messaging from the Labour Party, it simply serves to remind Remainers of Corbyn’s own equivocal position on Brexit.

Luckily for the leadership, and perhaps for Watson too, this is such a big news day that the new showing of divisions in the party may slip under the radar.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman