Corbyn’s Brexit: Britain’s Labour leader runs out of wiggle room

What Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, does next could be key to the UK’s future

When Labour MPs walked through the division lobby at Westminster shortly after 7pm on Wednesday, they knew defeat was certain. But for many of the party's MPs, members and supporters, losing the vote unlocked a prize they have been pursuing for almost three years: Labour's backing for a second referendum on Brexit.

The amendment, which was defeated by 83 votes, outlined Labour's plan for Brexit, including a permanent customs union and close alignment with the single market. Two days earlier Jeremy Corbyn, the party's leader, said that, if his first amendment failed, Labour would be "putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country".

Polls show that about three in five Labour voters favour a second referendum, and support is even higher among the party’s membership. Younger members and those in Momentum, the powerful Corbyn-supporting movement that has emerged as a party within a party, are especially enthusiastic about a vote that could reverse the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

One interpretation is that Jeremy Corbyn has played Brexit brilliantly. He sort of supported Remain in the referendum but not enough to prevent Leave from winning

A lifelong Eurosceptic who voted against the United Kingdom's membership in the 1975 referendum and opposed the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, Corbyn resisted until this week. In the 2017 general election, Labour promised to respect the previous year's referendum and to bring together the 52 per cent who voted Leave and the 48 per cent who voted Remain.


After Theresa May laid down her red lines ruling out membership of a customs union or the single market, Labour offered a softer Brexit. The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, slowly nudged the leadership towards embracing a customs union and, later, a "close relationship" with the single market. But it was an uphill struggle.

"Corbyn plus his team of Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy have provided a sort of iron wall of resistance to the pressure applied by Keir Starmer," says Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King's College London who runs the research initiative UK in a Changing Europe.

Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions on the soft left of the party, who has been in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet since 2016, has avoided public criticism of the leader and his allies. Last September, he helped to persuade Labour’s annual conference to adopt a Brexit motion mandating support for a second referendum if the party could not win support for its version of Brexit and failed to trigger a general election.

Corbyn’s decision to back a referendum last Monday followed a three-hour meeting with Starmer, who later confirmed that the choice on the ballot paper would be between “a viable Leave option” and remaining in the EU.

“One interpretation of this is that Jeremy Corbyn has played Brexit brilliantly,” Menon says. “He sort of supported Remain in the referendum but not enough to prevent Leave from winning – which actually, politically, might have suited him quite well. Because I don’t see Corbyn being as popular as he was in 2017 without the referendum, which challenged the existing order and was a sort of revolutionary moment, and that helped Corbyn.

“In 2017 he attracted votes from Leave and Remain because he was profoundly ambiguous. Now he’s in a position where he can say, ‘We’re in favour of a referendum, because we don’t support a Tory Brexit – but, actually, I didn’t block Brexit either.’ So he’s hoping to pull off the same trick. I think the elastic is being stretched fairly thin.”

Large numbers of my constituents now say they want to vote for no deal at all. Not listening to people is frankly what got us here in the first place

The trigger for Corbyn’s decision was the departure a week earlier of eight Labour MPs to form the Independent Group with three disaffected Conservatives. The MPs who left Labour were unhappy with Corbyn’s leadership for a number of reasons, including his handling of anti-Semitism within the party. But their primary motivation was Labour’s approach to Brexit and its failure to back a second referendum, which they all strongly support.

Corbyn feared that other MPs would follow the rebels out of the party – a real danger given the lack of support within the parliamentary party for his leadership and the intensification of feeling over Brexit as the endgame approaches.

Most MPs welcomed the party's embrace of a referendum, but some in constituencies that voted heavily for Brexit in 2016, such as Lisa Nandy, who represents Wigan, near Manchester, reacted angrily.

“Large numbers of my constituents are now saying they want to vote for no deal at all. And there’s a real problem here, because not listening to people… is frankly what got us here in the first place,” she said. “We’re about to go back and repeat all those same mistakes again. And worse than that, actually, we’re not being clear with people still. You’ve got members of the shadow cabinet, for example, with deep reservations about this, as surprised as anyone to hear this announcement on Monday.”

Even after Wednesday’s vote, a number of shadow cabinet members close to the leadership released videos extolling the merits of Labour’s own plan for Brexit. At the same time, left-wing activists in the Another Europe Is Possible group said it was not enough for Labour to vote for a second referendum: it must also campaign for it.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and Britain's leading expert on electoral behaviour, says it was always going to be in Labour's interest to move towards Remain.

“One understands why the Labour Party has tried to keep as many people as possible for as long as possible, because around 30 per cent of its voters voted to leave and 70 per cent voted to remain. But clearly, given those numbers, when forced to choose, then it makes sense for it to be leaning in a Remain direction,” he says.

“The way they’re trying to frame it, and thereby trying to keep Labour Leave voters happy, is to say, ‘We want to use the referendum to vote down Mrs May’s deal.’ Labour’s position decoded is: ‘We think that if Mrs May gets her deal through the House of Commons, then she should have to put it to a referendum.’ They’re not saying that ‘if Mrs May cannot get her deal through the House of Commons we will give her a second chance.’ And that’s a crucial distinction, because they are therefore trying to label it as being against a Tory Brexit.”

Two out of three Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted Leave in 2016, but Curtice says the statistic is misleading, because even in Leave-voting seats most Labour voters backed Remain. He also questions the argument made by opponents of a second referendum that most of the seats Labour needs to gain in order to win a general election are in heavily pro-Brexit areas.

“I think that calculation excludes Scotland and is therefore completely misleading. Remember that virtually every seat in Scotland is marginal between Labour and the SNP, and Scotland is Remain territory. Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of becoming prime minister rest, crucially, on being able to recover in Scotland, and the SNP are competing with him for the pro-Remain vote, because the SNP are in favour of a second EU referendum,” he says.

The clever thing about the Kyle-Wilson amendment was to say, 'You know what? We'll let it through, Mrs May. But then, for it to become law, it has to go to a referendum'

Labour’s support for a referendum is necessary but not sufficient to make it happen given the current parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster. Up to 25 Labour MPs are likely to defy the whip and oppose it, and there is no evidence that the number of Conservatives supporting it would be enough to tip the balance.

Labour is expected to table its amendment when May brings her deal back to the Commons for a "meaningful vote" by March 12th, but the party has not yet decided what form it should take. One option is to adopt a version of an amendment drafted by the Labour backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, which offers to support May's deal on condition that it be put to a confirmatory referendum.

"The point about the Kyle-Wilson amendment, which I thought was clever politics, is that the people who have been campaigning for a second referendum have framed it so much as giving people a chance to change their minds, because they were led astray by Boris Johnson et al in 2016, that they've turned it into a Remainer cause," Curtice says.

“But the clever thing about the Kyle-Wilson amendment was to say, ‘You know what? We’ll let it through, Mrs May. But then, for it to become law, it has to go to a referendum’.”

Campaigners for a second referendum have long believed that their best hope of success will come after all other options have been exhausted. May’s promise to MPs of a vote to extend the article 50 deadline opens up the prospect of the House of Commons seeking a compromise based on a softer Brexit if the prime minister’s deal is rejected a second time.

If there is no majority for a softer Brexit, MPs just might opt for a second referendum, but if it were called, how would it turn out?

“My current running average is Remain 53, Leave 47, and the polls have consistently shown Remain narrowly ahead for a long time. But much of that lead rests not on people changing their minds but on those who didn’t vote 2½ years ago, who are at least two to one in favour of Remain – at least that’s what they told the pollsters. But will they turn out? Even with them showing up, it’s 53-47, which means the campaign matters. And the Remain side are going to have to figure out an answer to the immigration question,” Curtice says.

We have politicians who are used to being perennially told that you've got to seek the centre ground in politics. There isn't a centre ground after Brexit

The prime minister has one further option, which is to call a general election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, this requires a two-thirds majority in the Commons, but Labour would almost certainly vote for it. The Conservatives have recently opened up a strong lead in the polls, and Corbyn is now deeply unpopular and has lost all the gains in his personal popularity he made during the 2017 campaign.

Conservative MPs will be reluctant to face another campaign with May as their leader, however, and Curtice believes that unless one of the two main parties implodes, Brexit has made it almost impossible for either to make significant gains.

"This country is so polarised between those who are ardent Remainers and those who are gung-ho Leavers, and there's very little ground in the middle. Which is why Mrs May's deal is struggling with public opinion as well as in the House of Commons. And it's why the Labour Party's idea that it's going to bring the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent together by triangulation is also probably for the birds. Norway, customs union, single market: these are Remainer solutions, and they won't bring the country together," he says.

“We have politicians who are used to being perennially told that you’ve got to seek the centre ground in politics. There isn’t a centre ground after Brexit. The distribution of attitudes is U-shaped: it’s the extremes that are well populated, not the middle.”