Labour leadership’s Brexit vagueness angers party’s pro-EU wing
Party leaning towards softest of Brexits but caution leads to second referendum fudge
Anti-Brexit campaigners stand the Labour conference in Liverpool. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Everywhere at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, bags and lapels carried stickers proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, a sentiment shared by the overwhelming majority of the party’s members. Many were angered by the compromise motion on Brexit that emerged from hours of procedural wrangling on Sunday night.
“If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote. If the government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from, they should not be afraid to put that deal to the public,” it says.
Hours earlier, Jeremy Corbyn had promised to accept any decision made at conference about a second referendum but on Monday morning, shadow chancellor John McDonnell suggested that the option of remaining in the EU should not be on the ballot. Their internal enemies point to Corbyn and McDonnell’s long record of opposition to the EU as evidence that they secretly back Brexit.
But the leadership’s caution is motivated more by electoral calculation than by ideology, as Labour hopes to capitalise on the anger of voters who oppose Brexit without alienating the party’s supporters who voted for it.
“My big worry is that if we go for a referendum which is seen as just a simple re-run, we could divide the country again, we could get almost the same result – or if it’s slightly different that people demand another referendum,” McDonnell said on Monday.
Labour’s policy has evolved since the referendum towards the softest of Brexits, including membership of a customs union with the EU. The party is inches away from calling for membership of the single market, too, and the convoluted motion at conference will lead it towards backing a second referendum.
Meanwhile in London, the government’s release of another batch of no-deal Brexit notices scarcely raised an eyebrow, despite their chilling warnings about grounded planes, buses and trucks. If Theresa May wants to avoid such an outcome, she has to reach an agreement with the EU on the Border backstop.
On Monday afternoon, she told Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, that her government would soon bring forward its proposal for the backstop. In Downing Street last week, she said it would include a commitment to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a veto on any new regulatory barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
This reflects the language of paragraph 50 of last December’s joint report between Britain and the EU, but it is a clause the EU has always regarded as a unilateral British commitment. If the prime minister is unable to move beyond it, the prospect of grounded planes will move closer into view.