Brexit: Corbyn urged to back second referendum as Labour frontbenchers hold crunch talks

‘The majority of Labour MPs want a change of position and they want it soon’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 18 June 2019 19:14 BST
Tom Watson: 'Our future doesn’t need to be Brexit'

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson is to make another push to commit the party to campaigning for a Final Say referendum and a Remain vote when the shadow cabinet meets to discuss its Brexit strategy on Wednesday.

Mr Watson is urging leader Jeremy Corbyn to call an emergency ballot or special conference to formally switch Labour’s policy before the summer, warning that it will be “too late” to stop a no-deal outcome if the party waits until its annual conference in Brighton in September.

But supporters of a People’s Vote fear the issue will be kicked into the long grass again at Wednesday’s meeting in Westminster, which was postponed from Monday after a number of shadow cabinet ministers were unable to attend.

Invitation letters sent out to shadow cabinet members said that the meeting had been “scheduled to help inform the ongoing frontbench approach to Brexit, whilst remaining in the framework of existing Labour Party policy as established by party members at annual conference”.

The invitation to the cancelled meeting made no mention of remaining within the existing policy, which makes a general election and the delivery of Labour’s “jobs-first Brexit” the preferred option over a fresh referendum.

Campaigners’ hopes that a paper recommending a new position would be presented to the meeting at Westminster were played down by sources with knowledge of the agenda.

In an impassioned speech on Monday, Mr Watson called for the party to throw its weight whole-heartedly behind the campaign for a second referendum, arguing the party should be “loud and proud” in its support for remaining in the EU.

Mr Corbyn came under fire from backbench MPs at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) last week over his refusal to change course in the wake of the party’s disastrous third place in the European elections.

After the debacle in May, when Labour took just 14 per cent of the vote, he told MPs he was “ready to support a public vote on any deal”. But he later made clear this could mean a general election or referendum, and he has not committed the party to supporting Remain in any vote.

Close allies including chairman Ian Lavery believe Labour risks losing millions of votes from working-class Leave voters in the Midlands and North if it moves to back Remain. Mr Lavery tweeted after the deputy leader’s speech: “Ignoring the 17.4 million Leave voters isn’t politically smart nor indeed particularly democratic. Is it?”

A source close to Mr Watson said he believes a change of position must be agreed by the start of the summer. “The majority of Labour MPs want a change of position and they want it soon,” said the source. “They feel that the summer is a chance to go out and make the positive case for a people’s vote and Remain.

“Conference is too late. Labour urgently needs to start making the case for Remain. We need to use this time while the Tories are scrapping over their new leader.”

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