The Labour leader demonstrated his iron grip by defeating a bid – led by his deputy Tom Watson – to end the “fudge” that would mean no public vote if the party’s “alternative plan” wins support at parliament.
Some anti-referendum Labour MPs were delighted, Gloria De Piero tweeting: “Labour’s manifesto for the European parliament will not contain a pledge to hold a second Brexit referendum.”
The shadow minister pointed out that the new policy said a referendum was “an option” to block even a Tory Brexit – seemingly a watering-down of Labour’s position, in February, that it “will back a public vote” in those circumstances.
Bridget Phillipson, a Labour People’s Vote supporter, warned her party would pay a price at this week’s local elections and the European elections to follow on 23 May.
“The manifesto’s mealy-mouthed wording still maintains the fiction that there is a deal out there that can satisfy all the promises made three years ago, avoid real costs to jobs and living standards, or end the endless crisis around Brexit,” she said.
“This means Labour risks demoralising activists, depressing turnout among supporters and decreasing the share of the vote for candidates who – like the overwhelming majority of our party – are fighting for a people’s vote on any Brexit deal.”
“Given there won’t be a general election and the Tories will not agree customs union and single market, the @UKLabour EU manifesto commits to a public vote,” Ian Murray, a former shadow Scottish secretary, tweeted.
Ben Bradshaw echoed the message, tweeting: “There won’t be an election cos Tory MPs won’t vote for one. #peoplesvote only thing left. Bingo!”
Labour’s pro-EU wing was also pleased that the party would now have to rapidly rewrite the controversial European elections leaflet, which made no mention of a fresh referendum.
The Labour leader is determined to avoid alienating his Leave voters by sticking to a policy of a referendum only to prevent what he dubs a “Tory Brexit”, or a no-deal Brexit.
It leaves open the possibility, however faint, of Labour helping to force through EU withdrawal if the Conservatives concede a customs union and demands on the single market, plus worker and environmental rights.
Following the meeting, a Labour source said: “The NEC agreed the manifesto which will be fully in line with Labour’s existing policy; to support Labour’s alternative plan, and if we can’t get the necessary changes to the government’s deal, or a general election, to back the option of a public vote.”
Mr Corbyn was expected to enjoy the support of at least 22 of the 39 members of the NEC, including from the Unite union and constituency representatives.
More than 20 Labour MEP candidates had defied their leadership by pledging to back a referendum and then campaign to remain in the EU.
And a letter from MPs and MEPs calling for a public vote on any Brexit deal has reached 118 signatories, meaning the majority of non-shadow cabinet MPs back it.
Meanwhile, the chances of a cross-party compromise faded when a government source said Theresa May would abandon the attempt if no agreement could be struck within one week.
The prime minister bowed to pressure to finally set a deadline for ending the talks with Jeremy Corbyn if necessary – deciding the Labour leader must be on board with seven days.
If Labour agrees not to block the withdrawal agreement bill, it would then be put to the Commons, but the government will “move in another direction” if no guarantee is given, the source said.
Until now, Downing Street had refused to say how long it would allow negotiations with Labour to continue – despite mounting Conservative anger at the tactic.
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