Tony Blair calls on Labour MPs to vote against Jeremy Corbyn if he takes 'wrong' approach to Brexit

Exclusive: The ex-PM said Labour is in danger of helping the Tories pull the UK out of the EU without knowing what the future looks like

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 28 March 2018 20:45 BST
Exclusive: Tony Blair calls on Labour MPs to defy Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit

Tony Blair has called on Labour MPs to vote against Jeremy Corbyn, if they believe the party leader takes the wrong approach to Brexit in the critical months between now and October.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Blair said MPs had to vote with their conscience if they see Labour is abetting Britain’s withdrawal without fully knowing what the country’s future relations with Europe will be.

He said Labour insiders feared Mr Corbyn is at heart “anti-European Union” and still has the same negative views on the bloc “that Tony Benn had 30 years ago”.

The former prime minister took the unusual step of comparing critical pending Brexit votes to those in which MPs rebelled against him over Iraq and tuition fees more than a decade ago – and urged his party’s representatives today to “go with what they believe”.

He also delivered a message to the Tories, warning that by pursuing Brexit they would prime a political backlash against their own party that could put Mr Corbyn in No 10.

Mr Blair spoke as Brexit negotiators try to secure a final deal on withdrawal and future relations by this October’s European summit, and then ratify it before the UK’s EU membership expires on 29 March 2019.

Despite the looming deadlines, he argued Theresa May would probably try to leave without having fully set out the implications of the deal she reaches and warned Labour was in danger of backing her agreement regardless.

Exclusive: Tony Blair describes why some Labour members may not have a clear view on Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit position

He told The Independent: “I think all MPs have got a responsibility to do what they think is right and that’s why what I was urging MPs to do, whether Conservative or Labour, is vote according to what you genuinely believe.

“This is the most important decision since the Second World War and it’s going to decide the destiny of the country for future generations – do what you think is right, this is one moment surely to do that.”

The idea that Labour could back Ms May’s Brexit deal was given credence on Wednesday when the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said an agreement would probably meet her party’s official demands, even if it was a “blah, blah, blah” divorce.

Writing for The Independent on Thursday though, shadow brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, assured Labour supporters the party would be prepared to formally oppose the deal.

Discussing Labour MPs’ decision on whether to back their party, Mr Blair went on: “It’s one of those rare occasions, and I’m aware I’m saying this as a former prime minister that would have obviously wanted in general terms the whips to be active on big issues of the day, but I think this is an issue that is unlike any other – I think all MPs whether they are Labour or Conservative should on this issue go with what they believe.”

Asked if there was a single issue during his own premiership, which in hindsight was so important that people would have been right to defy the whip, he said: “It depends how strongly they feel.

All MPs have got a responsibility to do what they think is right and that’s why what I was urging MPs to do, whether Conservative or Labour, is vote according to what you genuinely believe

Former prime minister Tony Blair

“Some people will resign – people resigned over Iraq for example. People resigned over tuition fees, people resigned over some of the reforms we did on welfare.

“It’s not a hugely unusual thing to say, but I think that on this issue, parliament is the only thing that can allow this issue to be handled in the right way.”

Mr Blair, who has already backed an unwhipped vote on the final Brexit deal and a second referendum, acknowledged his party was in a difficult position electorally, especially MPs in Labour heartlands which heavily backed Leave. But he explained the political challenge for those MPs was not insurmountable.

Exclusive: Tony Blair puts forward his case for a second referendum on Brexit

“One of the things I’ve been saying to MPs who are in Leave constituencies is, if you go out and say, ‘I’m trying to get you the best deal on Brexit, I accept the result of the referendum, but once the government’s got the deal I’m going to give you my view on it, because this is a new fact, you’ve got the deal, and I think you should have the final say’ – I think there are many people who voted Leave who would accept that,” he said.

Some Labour insiders have warned their party faces a reckoning over its Brexit position, which is to take the UK out of the EU – despite supportive younger voters and its membership being largely pro-EU.

Asked if he believed members had a clear view of Mr Corbyn’s position on Brexit, Mr Blair said he thought they “kind of understand it”.

He said people from Mr Corbyn’s wing of politics had traditionally been “anti-European Union”, even though he believed the Labour leader could easily deliver his left-wing programme from within the bloc.

Mr Blair went on: “Part of the left has always seen the European Union as a kind of capitalist conspiracy, in the same way that part of the right has always regarded the European Union as a socialist conspiracy.

“Neither is right by the way, but this is the legacy of the past, and what it means is that people worry that, in his heart of hearts, Jeremy Corbyn still has the same position on this that Tony Benn had 30 years ago.”

In a speech delivered in the Palace of Westminster earlier this week, Mr Blair predicted the government will not set out the full implications of any deal before leaving the EU, because it would either leave Brexiteers feeling disappointed or promise significant economic damage, depending on what kind of customs relations the country ends up with.

He said the political turmoil that would follow a post-Brexit realisation, that the deal does not live up to people’s expectations, would then create an opening for Mr Corbyn to win an election.

Exclusive: Tony Blair issues warning to the Tory party over their handling of Brexit

He said: “Who is the country going to blame? They are going to blame the Tories.”

“It’s a message to the Tory party, to say: ‘You guys think you are being smart in sticking together and saying OK, we are just going to deliver Brexit, but actually you are not being smart because you are going to take sole responsibility for this decision,” he said.

“The 17 million who voted Leave may be short on gratitude, and the 16 million who voted Remain are not going to forget.

“13 million votes, frankly, on the basis of the last 20, 30 years, wins you an election.”

Exclusive: Tony Blair says the EU would take the UK back if we 'withdrew the letter' triggering Article 50

The former Labour leader said that if Britain is going to change its mind on Brexit, then it would be vital to do so before March 2019, after which it would be much harder to return on the same terms it had pre-referendum.

He said: “I have never had any doubt at all that if Britain were to show, and I think this is what will become important in the coming months, that there is the possibility of the country changing its mind, it would get a positive and immediate response.”

The former PM was also to set out a range of radical, tougher immigration policies on Thursday, which aim to assuage public concern over the issue if the UK opts to remain in the EU.

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