ANALYSIS: If Jeremy Corbyn comes out for a People's Vote it will be on his terms - not someone else's

Posted On: 
11th December 2018

Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t at today’s People’s Vote press conference - but his was the name on everybody’s lips.

Opposition parties are demanding that the Labour leader gets behind a no confidence vote that would pave the way to second referendum.

One after another, key figures from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and the small, Remain-backing wing of the Tory party urged the opposition leader to make a move that they believe will help bring a so-called People’s Vote closer.

Corbyn has so far resisted backing a fresh public vote.

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Instead, Labour is focused on ousting Theresa May at a general election - with a motion passed at this year’s party conference leaving a new referendum on the table only if an election bid fails. 

But Mrs May’s decision to pull the Commons Brexit vote that had been pencilled in for tonight has dramatically raised the stakes - and the People’s Vote campaign is not wasting any time in making their move.

Ostensibly, today’s event had three aims: to urge the EU to step up planning for a second referendum by allowing for an extension to Article 50; to call on the Government to start its own prep work for such a vote; and to demand that Corbyn joins a cross-party call to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.

It’s that third point, though, where the real battle lies - with the campaign trying a mixture of carrot and stick to get the Labour leader to come onside.

Labour grandee Dame Margaret Beckett kicked things off, directly urging Corbyn to “think very hard about adding your signature to those of the other leaders here today” and join a push for a no confidence vote so the party can start to “campaign for the People’s Vote that Labour’s members and voters so desperately desire”.

Green MP Caroline Lucas tried to push some left-wing buttons with an impassioned plea for a different Britain if Brexit were halted.

A fresh referendum would not, she said, be about “defending the establishment”, but healing the wounds that she believes led people to vote for Leave in a howl of anger at those in charge.

“Now I count Jeremy Corbyn as a friend and a colleague - we’ve been on countless platforms together, we share many values,” she said.

“And I’ve always been crystal clear that the people's vote campaign is not about replacing him as a leader, it’s not about for heaven’s sake, another party. 

“What it’s about is tackling, together, the real problems that affect this country and which, right now, are going to be harder to address if we go ahead with Brexit."


Perhaps more surprsingly, that was a message echoed clearly by Conservative MP Anna Soubry.

Soubry has become synonymous with the campaign against Brexit - but she loyally served David Cameron as a minister during the coalition years and is no one's idea of a Corbynite.

Still, like Lucas, she pitched a second referendum not as a chance to “re-run” the 2016 campaign, but to “deal with the very issues that drove so many people to support Brexit”.

As well as those appeals to Corbyn's lifelong political beliefs, the SNP is trying a bit of good old-fashioned arm-twisting. 

The party's Westminster leader Ian Blackford said that if Corbyn failed to bring about a no confidence vote, other parties would have to “rise to that challenge”.

It's a stance that's already been dismissed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who said this lunchtime that the SNP "know we're breathing down their necks in Scotland and will take seats off them" in any general election, which would be ruled out if a confidence vote was called and defeated.

Perhaps the most telling moment of today's press conference, however, came when Soubry was asked whether she was really willing to demand a no confidence vote in her own government just to secure a second referendum.

"It's a paving way to deliver on the [Labour] conference motion and you can be assured that when that vote of confidence comes - I will be voting in support of my government,” she said.

It's not hard to see why some in Corbyn's office will interpret that as a call for Labour to stick its neck out, call a no confidence vote it cannot win, and then fail to get a general election - all so the party can get on with its back-up plan of supporting a second referendum.

Hardly the most politically appetising prospect for the opposition at a time when the Government is in disarray.

Some Labour MPs really do believe their leader is now inching closer to supporting a second referendum - with their constituents increasingly animated by the idea that politicians have stuffed up Brexit and voters should therefore get a say on the next move.

But it’s clear that Corbyn - who confounded expectations by playing it his own way at the 2017 election - will not want to do so on anyone's terms but his own.