Jeremy Corbyn’s People’s Vote U-turn could be a gamechanger – but only if he changes the habits of a lifetime, says former Europe minister DENIS MACSHANE.
So are we poised to hold a new referendum? The jubilation among those campaigning to keep the UK in the EU should be put on hold until we see evidence that there is a broad-based campaign by the Labour leadership and that most of the party’s MPs have made a new vote the centre-piece of their approach to Brexit.
There is no immediate sign of either. Instead, we are quickly back in the dreary old territory of Labour insisting that the Commons should vote for its version of a cake-and-eat Brexit, based on a surreal arrangement which would allow Britain to be in ‘a’ – not ‘the’ – customs union, with a right to have a say on overall EU trade policy.
Such a possibility does not exist and is incompatible with WTO rules. You are either in a customs union or not. Labour also wants its fantasy ‘close alignment’ with the single market while still being able to pick and chose bits it does not like. All EU27 members would prefer that version of the single market, but it is not on offer.
If Labour puts its unicorn version of Brexit to the Commons it will be rejected. Thereafter, the party says it will call for a new referendum to stop Theresa May’s deeply flawed deal. Her Withdrawal Agreement means the UK leaves the EU Treaty on March 29 but stays in the EU in economic and trade terms – including freedom of movement – while Brussels and London spend time negotiating the headings of a future relationship contained in the 147 paragraphs of the political declaration. These are full of contradictory assertions. They do not cover the service sector – 80% of the UK economy – and, by the standards of most EU agreements with third countries, the negotiations will take five to ten years to complete. In that period there will be no certainty for business, above all for foreign investors.
Labour quite rightly says May’s deal is very bad for Britain. Yet those arguing for the people to be given a chance to cast their verdict on this future disaster have been treated with indifference bordering on hostility by endless shadow cabinet ministers in the last 18 months.
Pro-European Labour MPs like Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock, and party grandees like Lord Charlie Falconer, have all opposed a new consultation. They have joined the more predictable, anti-European rent-a-quote Labour MPs who get more headlines than their colleagues, with their strident opposition for the right of the people to be consulted. Up to a few days ago this line against a new referendum seemed to find favour in the inner circles of the party leadership. Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary and the trade union leader closest to Corbyn, has never made a secret of his contempt for a new referendum.
So what has happened to produce this U-turn in favour of another vote? Step forward the nine Labour MPs who resigned from the party to form a new Independent Group. There is a tenth, Ian Austin, who is anti-Corbyn, but who supports Brexit and May’s Deal.
The shock waves those resignations caused should not be under-estimated. Equally significant was an opinion poll this week showing Labour’s vote slumping to just 23%. Another showed that 84% of people who had reached voting age since 2016 wanted to stay in Europe and 87% said they would oppose May’s deal in a referendum.
To stay in the same trench where Corbyn and the shadow cabinet have been crouching since Labour activists voted for a new referendum at the party conference last September – placing a second vote on some far-off horizon – was no longer tenable. So Corbyn finally moved out in the open this week with his second referendum announcement.
But quickly, the wheels have started wobbling. When his foreign affairs spokesman, Emily Thornberry, said Remain would be an option in another referendum, a senior Corbyn aide suggested she had ‘misspoke’. A significant number of Labour MPs have also said they will oppose support for a new public vote.
Unless, it has the support for a good number of Tory MPs, the Labour new referendum proposal will fail to win support in the Commons. This will allow Corbyn to wash his hands of responsibility by saying ‘I tried to win support for a new referendum but the Commons rejected it’.
Let us see if all of Labour’s shadow cabinet as they fan out to do media interviews and address party meetings show enthusiasm and energy in denouncing Brexit, and the flawed corrupted plebiscite of lies of June 2016. Corbyn’s announcement is a potential game-changer but only if he and Labour play a new game of support for Britain in Europe – something Corbyn has opposed since he joined the Labour party half a century ago.
• Denis MacShane is the UK former Minister of Europe who has written two books on Brexit.