The U.K. opposition Labour Party plans to vote down Theresa May’s divorce agreement with the European Union, and sees a second referendum as a way of avoiding a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer set out what he called a “sequenced, structured,” strategy for the next few months in Parliament, when May is expected to put the Brexit deal she negotiates with Brussels to lawmakers for approval. Labour will vote against the deal, and if it manages to defeat the government, the party will push for a general election.
If that’s not possible, “then an option must be a public vote” as a way of avoiding a no-deal exit, Starmer said. “We shouldn’t go to ‘no deal’ because that would be catastrophic.”
Starmer, who has slowly shifted the Labour Party’s Brexit policy over the last year, said he doesn’t know what the question should be in any second referendum. But an option to reverse Brexit should remain on the table, he told Bloomberg TV in an interview. “We’re ruling nothing out, and therefore not ruling out remain.”
Personally, he would vote to stay in if there was a second vote, he told BBC radio.
Starmer’s comments add to pressure building on May ahead of a showdown at her Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham next week. Not only has the EU rejected key parts of her Brexit proposal, she’s also struggling to win over Tory lawmakers pushing for a cleaner break from the bloc. She doesn’t have a majority in Parliament so risks defeat if just a handful of Conservative lawmakers reject the deal she eventually signs.
In a speech Tuesday at Labour’s annual conference, Starmer got a standing ovation from some delegates when he reiterated that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option.” The line wasn’t in the official script of his speech handed out to delegates.
The government has “no credible plan for Brexit” and May isn’t on course to meet tests set by the Labour Party as a way of measuring whether it should back her deal, Starmer said.
“A Tory civil war that has gone on for years now threatens our future prosperity,” he said. “I’ve got a message for the prime minister. ‘If your party wants to tear itself apart, that’s fine, but you’re not taking our country with you.'”
While the Conservative Party accused Labour of “playing political games,” it’s possible May could be helped by Starmer’s announcement.
Party fixers trying to bring rebellious Tory lawmakers into line will be able to warn them that voting alongside Labour lawmakers could threaten May’s government and increase the risk of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn taking over talks with Brussels.
Labour delegates in Liverpool will debate a motion on Tuesday that would keep open the option of pushing for a second Brexit referendum if May refuses to start the process that would lead to a general election.
“If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote,” the motion says. “If the government is confident in negotiating a deal that working people, our economy and communities will benefit from, they shouldn’t be afraid to put that deal to the public.”
John McDonnell, Labour’s economy spokesman, insisted on Monday that any referendum would be on the terms of the deal and would not offer voters the option to stay in the bloc, setting up an argument with delegates on Tuesday.
“We’ve said we’ll respect the referendum result,” McDonnell told Bloomberg TV. “We’ll campaign for a people’s vote and in that people’s vote they’ll be able to make a decision on the deal that the government has brought back.”
Starmer told the BBC that McDonnell had later clarified his position and that there is no difference of opinion between them.
There is no guarantee that all Labour lawmakers will back the party line and vote against May’s deal. While some, like Kate Hoey, are committed to Britain leaving the EU, others, like Lisa Nandy, say their constituents are desperate for certainty.
“There are thousands of people around the country whose jobs depend on having clarity,” Nandy told Sky News.
The party fought last year’s general election straddling the divide on Brexit and is acutely aware that it can’t risk alienating either side if it wants to win next time. Corbyn said on Sunday that 60 percent of Labour voters backed remain while 40 percent voted leave — and he will need them all.
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