Does Labour have a new plan to stop Brexit?

The party is seeking to prevent the UK automatically leaving the EU if MPs reject Theresa May’s agreement. 

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Almost exactly a year after Article 50 was triggered, Remainers are short of time to stop Brexit. Public opinion has not changed to the degree that many hoped and Labour is still committed to EU withdrawal (as Jeremy Corbyn’s sacking of Owen Smith demonstrated).

Keir Starmer’s latest intervention, however, has cheered some Remainers. The shadow Brexit secretary has announced that Labour will seek to amend the EU withdrawal bill to ensure that a parliamentary vote against the government’s deal would not lead to the UK leaving without an agreement. To date, the Conservatives have insisted that Britain would simply crash out and revert to economically harmful World Trade Organisation terms.

“We will not dictate what parliament should do in such circumstances,” Starmer said (having all but committed Labour to voting against the anticipated Brexit deal this autumn). “But Labour’s preference in that scenario is clear: the government should go back to the negotiating table and work towards securing a deal that works for Britain.

“This would provide a safety valve in the Brexit process to safeguard jobs and the economy. It would remove the possibility of a no vote leading to a no deal. It would bring back control to parliament.”

Though Starmer states that Labour would not seek to prevent Brexit in such circumstances, others certainly would (whether the EU would let them is another matter). And as the Conservatives have noted today, Starmer, deputy leader Tom Watson and even Corbyn himself have not ruled out backing a new referendum at some point.

“We're not calling for that [a Brexit referendum],” Starmer told Robert Peston yesterday. “But I can see why there is an argument that this is not something that should be the preserve of the Prime Minister.” On The Andrew Marr Show, when invited to rule out another referendum, deputy leader Tom Watson replied: “You should always try keep your options open in a negotiation, particularity when one that could have such a disastrous outcome.” At a European Socialist Conference last December, Corbyn commented: “We’ve not made any decision on a second referendum. What we’ve said is that we would respect the result of the first referendum.”

Starmer has vowed to work with “others in the Lords and the Commons” to ensure the planned amendment is passed (a version has already been tabled by peers). But will they work with him?

To defeat the government, Labour needs the support of Conservative rebels. But a senior Tory Remainer told me today: “It [the amendment] is proposed by the Labour frontbench who we have no interest in supporting.” Conservative MPs have long refused to work with the party's leadership and Jeremy Corbyn's recent handling of Russia and anti-Semitism have made them even less likely to do so. 

The view among Labour Remainers is that Starmer is “late to the party” and that, as with the government's defeat last year over a “meaningful vote”, much of the momentum will come from the backbenches (such as through Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry's APPG on EU relations). But should Labour now side unambiguously with Remain MPs on this issue, a new route to stopping Brexit may open up. 

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.