EXPLAINED: What is the deal with the new Labour policy on a second Brexit referendum?

Posted On: 
26th February 2019

Jeremy Corbyn last night threw his weight behind calls for a second EU referendum - but as usual things are never quite that simple.

Jeremy Corbyn has undergone a major shift in his Brexit stance
Credit: 
PA Images

What did Labour actually commit to?

The Labour leader told his MPs at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that he would join calls for a public vote if his own plan for Brexit is rejected by the Prime Minister. He wrote to Theresa May earlier this month saying Labour could back her in the Commons if she met his red lines on Brexit, including keeping the UK in a permanent customs union with the EU. There is no way the PM will agree to that - and Labour has now set a deadline of today for confirmation.

The next stage in the Labour process is to back a Commons amendment calling for a second Brexit referendum. The amendment would be tacked onto the deal the Prime Minister brings back to the Commons when she finishes negotiating the Northern Irish backstop with the EU. She has said she will bring her deal back to the Commons by 12 March.


What would be on the ballot paper in a referendum under the Labour plan?

The one thing we know would be on the ballot in a Labour-backed referendum is an option to Remain in the EU. The rest is rather more vague. A briefing paper the leadership sent out to MPs last night (see below) said the party would want to see a referendum between Remain and a “credible” Leave option. What could that be?

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry have said that could mean a choice between Remain and whatever deal the PM gets through the Commons. But senior Labour sources have pushed back on that - saying the deal cannot take the same form as the one overwhelmingly voted down by MPs in January. That means Theresa May will have to secure changes from the EU for her deal to be on a Labour-backed ballot paper.

The briefing paper said the party could support the amendment drawn up by its MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson. That amendment promises support for the PM’s deal on the grounds it is put to a referendum. However Labour has asked the MPs to redraft their amendment - meaning it could change, possibly to make clear that it would have to be a reformed deal from the PM.

Labour also leaves open the possibility of no-deal being on the ballot paper - but makes clear it could not advocate for a no-deal Brexit.


Why has Labour backed a second referendum now?

After long resisting calls to back a second referendum, Jeremy Corbyn has finally bowed to pressure. The obvious explanation is that the party is following the policy agreed at conference last year. That committed the leadership to mulling support for a second referendum if all the other options had been burned out. But there are a few other theories doing the rounds.

Some observers believe the move is an indication of Jeremy Corbyn losing his grip on the policy and marks a victory for the likes of Keir Starmer and John McDonnell, who have been moving more firmly towards a second referendum. An added possibility is that the defections from the party to the Independent Group last week (with the Labour position on Brexit being a major factor) prompted the leadership to act to stop any more MPs leaving.

One element to take into account is that the chances of securing a second referendum remain incredibly slim. As it stands, Theresa May is dead against it and there is still no Commons majority for it unless more Tory MPs back the drive. That allows the leadership to argue it did try to stop Brexit but was unable to. It also means Labour can continue to straddle the divide between a membership that wants Brexit stopped and voters who want it to happen.


What has the fallout been?

Labour has already faced a backlash from its MPs in pro-Brexit seats who have dismissed calls for a second referendum. A number of those - including Caroline Flint, Ruth Smeeth and John Mann - are calling for a free vote on the issue. Corbyn could face resignations from the likes of pro-Brexit MPs on the frontbenches liked Mel Onn, who has said she cannot support a second referendum. It will also be tough for Shadow Cabinet figures like Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery to swallow.

The announcement has also sparked a row among senior Labour figures as to what exactly would be on the ballot paper in a second referendum. The party will have to make a decision on that soon or the divisions will run and run. The publication of the updated Kyle/Wilson amendment will be a key moment, and Westminster watchers would be wise to keep an eye out for other amendments the party could back.


Read the full briefing document sent out to Labour MPs below