Is Labour inching towards support for a second referendum?

On Tuesday next week, Parliament will vote on the Government’s statement of proposed next steps in the aftermath of the heavy defeat of the Government’s Brexit deal in the so-called “meaningful vote”.

A wide variety of amendments to the Government’s motion are now being tabled, including one from the Labour frontbench which has piqued the interest of those looking for signs that the party may be slowly coming round to backing a second referendum. The amendment in the name of Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer and others states that Parliament should be given time to consider and vote on options which would prevent the UK leaving the EU with no deal, and that these options should include: (i) a ‘Labour-ised’ version of a Brexit deal (featuring a permanent customs union and a “strong relationship with the single market”); and (ii) legislating to hold a public vote on a deal or proposition that has commanded the support of a majority in the Commons.

This grabbed headlines today because it is the first time that the Labour leadership has tabled any form of words in Parliament which overtly includes consideration of a second vote on Brexit. “Corbyn backs plan for second referendum” was the front-page splash in today’s Telegraph – but that creates a rather misleading impression of the significance of Labour’s amendment.

The first point to note is that the Labour amendment is essentially a reaffirmation of the party’s policy as agreed in a composite motion at their party conference in September. “If we cannot get a General Election”, it stated, “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.” There is nothing in the Parliamentary amendment the party has now tabled which in any way contradicts or builds on that motion. It is simply a logical conclusion flowing from the defeat of the Government’s meaningful vote, and the subsequent failure of Labour’s motion of no confidence to bring about a General Election.

The Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey – a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – confirmed this morning that Labour’s amendment should not be interpreted as a signal that the party is now throwing its weight behind the second referendum cause. This much was already clear to Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and other Labour campaigners for a ‘People’s Vote’, and that is why they were quick last night to express their dismay as, in the words of Umunna, “Nothing has changed and we’re running out of time”.

The Labour amendment is also failing to win over the type of Conservative rebels that would be required to inflict a defeat on the Government. Anna Soubry says the amendment is “not far enough”, while Sarah Wollaston has endorsed the sentiment that it is “too weak”. For Tory MPs, it is already enough of a wrench to support a Labour frontbench amendment – they are certainly not going to do it if they consider it wholly inadequate to boot.

So the Labour amendment is unlikely to succeed. Should we therefore dismiss it’s significance entirely?

No. The two specific options which the party has chosen to include by name were not plucked out of thin air. Labour’s alternative form of deal was obviously going to be included, but they included only one other and that was the public vote. This is partly about keeping a restless party activist base – who overwhelmingly back a public vote – on board by continuing to nudge in that direction. But it is also about sending a clear signal to government that the threat of Labour swinging its weight behind a second referendum remains real. With the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, Green and at least half a dozen Tory MPs already on board, the support of the Labour frontbench would be a game-changer.

At this stage, it is not at all clear that this is where Jeremy Corbyn and those closest to him want to go. But putting this in the foreground as their possible second preference could have the effect of spooking the Government into trying to meet Labour half way on their first preference. Perhaps say, a permanent customs union, or something that looks very much like one. However they need to balance this with the risk that it could also nudge Tory Brexiteers closer to backing the PM’s deal.

Assuming their own amendment does not garner enough support to pass, it will be interesting to see which, if any, of the backbench amendments the Labour leadership throws its weight behind. At this stage, a strong bet appears to be the ‘Cooper-Boles’ amendment which seeks to avert a no deal by enabling the passage of a Bill which would set a deadline for the PM to get a Brexit deal through Parliament by 26 February, after which Parliament would be able to vote on extending the Article 50 deadline.

Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn and over 20 other Labour MPs have signed this amendment, while assorted Labour MPs are backing other amendments ranging from those advocating a series of indicative votes for Parliament to the establishment of a ‘Citizens Assembly’ to make recommendations on the route forward. This illustrates the lack of consensus which persists on the Labour benches on the best route to break the Parliamentary impasse.

For the frontbench however, while they may appear on the surface to be inching slowly in the direction of a second referendum, their eyes may really be on a different prize

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