Brexit: Labour signals backing for referendum on PM’s deal

Party to support amendment putting Johnson deal to public vote with option to remain

British prime minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons during the first Saturday sitting of parliament since 1982. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP via Getty

Britain's shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has said Labour will back an amendment this week that would put Boris Johnson's deal to a confirmatory referendum with an option to remain in the European Union.

“We have already voted, I think, three times as a party for a second referendum with a three-line whip behind it,” he told the BBC.

“The position we have adopted is whatever the outcome, whether it’s Boris Johnson’s bad deal or a better one which could be secured, it has got to go to a referendum up against Remain.”

Sir Keir was speaking a day after MPs voted to defer approval of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal until after the legislation implementing it is passed.


The 322-306 majority for former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin’s amendment was made possible by the DUP’s 10 MPs who backed it in defiance of the government.

During a five-hour sitting, the first on a Saturday since the start of the Falklands War in 1982, Conservative Brexiteers fell into line behind the prime minister. But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds quoted back to Mr Johnson his promise never to create a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“It also puts us in the VAT regime. It also puts us in the single market regime for a large part of goods and agrifood, without any consent up front, contrary to the agreement made in December 2017, which said that regulatory difference could happen only with the consent of the Executive and the Assembly. It drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement by altering the cross-community consent mechanism,” said Mr Dodds.


The prime minister defended the deal, pointing out that Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union with the rest of the UK. And he argued that the requirement for a simple majority in the Stormont Assembly to extend the arrangements after four years was a robust consent mechanism that complied with the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

“I do think it a pity that it is thought necessary for one side or the other in the debate in Northern Ireland to have a veto on those arrangements because, after all – and I must be very frank about this – the people of this country have taken a great decision embracing the entire four nations of this country, by a simple majority vote that went 52:48 and which we are honouring now. I think that principle should be applied elsewhere, and I see no reason why it should not be applied in Northern Ireland as well,” he said.

Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon said the deal had caused anger and anxiety among unionists and she called on Mr Johnson to give a public reassurance that nothing in the agreement would undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

“I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who has given a very solemn explanation about his commitment to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. But as a unionist I need to hear a British prime minister making that commitment to the unionist community,” she said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times