Kevin Maguire: Labour could still back a second Brexit vote
Word from Jeremy Corbyn’s inner sanctum is the leader and his top aides are deliberately keeping their options open.
Jeremy Corbyn neatly jumped over an elephant trap that Theresa May hastily dug as she endured a Brexit train crash at Prime Minister’s Questions this week.
Sticking to his own timetable, the Labour Controller knocked his opponent off track with a crunching Europe jibe. She’s responsible for more delays and cancellations than Northern Rail, he asserted.
Yet when we peer back later this year or early next the more significant moment might, just might, be Corbyn’s refusal to bite on May’s challenge to rule out a second referendum. “The last time I looked at the Order Paper,” snapped back Corbyn, “it said ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’.”
That’s undeniably true but there could have been a fundamental strategic decision not to answer, rather than constitutional etiquette. The word from Corbyn’s inner sanctum is the leader and his very closest advisers are deliberately keeping open the option of endorsing a people’s vote on any Brexit deal.
“The split in the Government and the split in the Opposition are genuine divisions,” admitted a prominent member of the shadow cabinet.
“There is an argument that people get the final say on the deal. We’re in an unusual position here, there’s no blueprint to show us the way forward. The imperative for us is to build unity and let the Conservatives tear themselves apart. How we do that is fluid and nothing, sensibly, is ruled out by Jeremy and the inner sanctum.”
Labour’s strategy is a power play propelled more by a desire to unite a fractious party to improve its prospects of securing power at a general election than adopting principled, workable positions on the Customs Union, Single Market and membership of the European Union itself. When Theresa May’s still negotiating with David Davis, Cabinet ministers and Tory Brextremists herded by Jacob Rees-Mogg rather than Michel Barnier and 27 European neighbours, the Labour leadership’s game plan is to throw bottles from the stands while keeping off the pitch.
The message heard by Corbyn’s office after his victory at Prime Minister’s Questions was that the luxury of opposition means a party is able to expose the glaring failures of an enemy without detailing a credible alternative.
It is a saving grace for shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer after the sceptical reception for his latest political contortions. Both Starmer and John Healey in Labour’s shadow cabinet session earlier this week criticised Labour rebels plotting Withdrawal Bill revolts next Tuesday and Wednesday, emphasising the value of unity. Neither is a Corbynista.
Chuka Umunna was mentioned negatively by name during discussions and a member of the body later added Chris Leslie as a target, accusing the pair of putting Europe before party and charging them with “treachery” - asserting they didn’t want Corbyn-led Labour to win a general election. “This pair go out of the way to cause trouble for Jeremy and most MPs are sick and tired of them,” declared a second shadow cabinet member. “They make a lot of noise and exaggerate their numbers as we’ll see next week.”
Corbyn’s office and the Labour whips spent the last few days talking down frontbenchers they feared might jump over Europe next Tuesday and Wednesday to vote for the Norway EEA option passed by the House of Lords and championed by Umunna are Leslie. A figure in the political operation said Labour is “pretty confident” resignations would be avoided by shadow ministers who favour remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union.
Embracing the people’s vote campaign, stressing the country would accept or reject a Brexit deal to escape the toxicity of branding any plebiscite a second referendum to overturn a first (or best of three if 1975’s counted as well as 2016), would be a bold move by Corbyn.
It might happen or it might not happen. What’s clear is Labour no more has a settled position on Brexit than the Conservative Government.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor of the Daily Mirror.