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25 February 2019

Labour to back second EU referendum

In a major concession to pro-EU backbenchers, Jeremy Corbyn will tell MPs that Labour will table or support a second referendum amendment to the meaningful vote.

By Patrick Maguire

Labour is to shift its Brexit position to supporting a second referendum, Jeremy Corbyn will tell MPs this evening.

In a significant concession to pro-EU backbenchers, Corbyn will tell MPs at tonight’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that the leadership will “put forward or support” an amendment to next month’s meaningful vote that provides for a referendum on the Brexit deal.

The Labour leader will use his speech to the PLP to cast the decision as a bid to prevent a no-deal Brexit. “One way or another, we will do everything in our power to prevent No Deal and oppose a damaging Tory Brexit based on Theresa May’s overwhelmingly rejected deal,” he will say.

“That’s why, in line with our conference policy, we are committed to also putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”

The political reality of the decision, however, is that a significant shift on Brexit policy has become an imperative after a week that saw eight Labour MPs defect to the Independent Group over the leadership’s aversion to a second referendum, despite party policy dictating it was still on the table.

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In that context, Corbyn’s unequivocal signal that Labour will support a push for a second referendum in the Commons is best understood as a bid to prevent further defections. But the debate within the shadow cabinet has nonetheless been raging for many months and the shift is a significant victory for Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary and the most forceful and persistent advocate for a new vote at Labour’s top table. It comes in spite of opposition from genuine ideological allies of Corbyn, like Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, and Ian Lavery, the Labour chairman, as well as significant resistance from MPs in leave-voting constituencies in the English north and midlands.

Though some are warming to the idea, they are still likely to defy any whip in large numbers – which means a much bigger number of Conservative rebels than the nine declared supporters of a new vote will be required if it is to pass the Commons. Frontbench advocates of the plan say it will service both halves of Labour’s electoral coalition: those in leave seats can sell it as a vote for a deal, while those in remain areas can cast it as a vote for a new referendum.

Though Labour will bid to enshrine its Norway-style future relationship with the EU in law with an amendment to Wednesday’s Brexit vote, it is all but certain to fail. Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, the Labour backbenchers planning an amendment that would approve May’s Brexit deal on the condition that it would then be subject to a confirmatory referendum, agreed not to table their plans to this week’s vote, which allows the leadership to cast a politically difficult decision as an inevitable consequence of the party’s conference policy.

Instead of approving May’s deal, however, Labour would seek to amend the meaningful vote to put its preferred relationship to a referendum. In a week where party unity has been strained to breaking point, the political pain of not doing so, sources say, would have been much higher than that incurred by failing to make the shift. But bigger electoral problems could await if the party pulls off the still unlikely feat of succeeds in making a public vote happen.

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