Will Brexit happen? Could Labour's support for a People's Vote stop Britain leaving?

  • The opposition Labour party moved this week to support a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
  • The decision to support a second referendum delighted many Labour MPs who back the People’s Vote campaign.
  • But there remains no majority in parliament for a second referendum.

LONDON – The Labour party this week committed to supporting a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell confirmed last night that Labour would table an amendment calling for a fresh vote, potentially as early as next week, if May’s deal is rejected by parliament for a second time.

“When the meaningful vote comes back, and we are told maybe that might be on March 12, there are rumours … that it could be next week, we will see,” he told ITV.

“That’s the time when we will have to put the amendment up.”

The move came after a concerted effort from shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer and deputy leader Tom Watson, who feared that failure to act decisively could have led to more defections to the breakaway Independent Group of MPs, whose members all support a second referendum.

It also comes after the prime minister announced that MPs will have the right to vote to delay Brexit, giving new hope to those who wish to prevent Britain leaving the EU.

So what does is all mean, and could Labour’s move really stop Brexit?

What does Labour’s support for a second referendum achieve?

Chuka Umunna Anna Soubry Sir Vince CableWiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The timing of Labour’s move to support a second referendum after 8 Labour MPs defected to the new Independent Group of MPs is no coincidence.

All 11 of its members – including 3 Tory MPs – back the People’s Vote campaign, and the Labour leadership believe that supporting a second referendum will go a long way to preventing more MPs from defecting from the party.

The Independent Group has in that regard achieved a lot in a short space of time, by forcing the leadership of Britain’s main opposition party to back a new public vote.

Is a second referendum likely?

Sir Keir StarmerLeon Neal/Getty ImagesKeir Starmer

Not yet. The decision to support a second referendum delighted many Labour MPs who back the People’s Vote campaign, but Corbyn faces stern opposition from colleagues in Leave-voting seats where such a policy is deeply unpopular.

Former shadow minister Lucy Powell estimated that up to 25 MPs would vote against a Labour whip to back a second referendum, no matter how the motion was worded. Her Labour colleague Lisa Nandy told ITV last night “you’ve got members of the shadow cabinet with deep reservations about this, as surprised as anybody to hear this announcement on Monday.”

Another prominent Labour MP, who backs the campaign for a People’s Vote, told Business Insider this week that the number of rebels could stretch to 40. However, they believed a “proper whipping operation” by the Labour leadership could bring that number down.

There is also hope that Conservative MPs will start to come out publicly for a second vote now that Labour have fallen behind it. However, with all but 10 Conservative MPs still publicly opposed, the odds of that happening in large enough numbers to win a majority for a referendum currently looks slim.

This could all change, of course, if the government itself accepted a referendum in exchange for MPs backing her Brexit deal. However, Theresa May is currently stubbornly opposed and has said that supporting a public vote would be a “betrayal of our democracy.”

Without that parliamentary majority there will be no second referendum. Of course this could all change if there is a general election in which Labour win. However, the polls do not currently look favourable for Labour and there is little support on the Conservative benches for calling one.

What question would be on the ballot paper?

Remain campaign stop brexitGetty

If these hurdles are met however, what would a referendum look like?

Well the Labour party indicated this week that the choice offered on a second referendum would be between May’s Brexit deal and remaining in the EU, with no deal ruled out.

A private briefing sent to Labour MPs on Monday indicated that the party would include remain as an option in a future referendum, the Guardian reported.

“We’ve always said that any referendum would need to have a credible leave option and remain,” said the briefing note.

“Obviously at this stage that is yet to be decided and would have to be agreed by parliament.”

The briefing also indicated that no deal would not be on the ballot paper.

“There’s no majority for a no-deal outcome and Labour would not countenance supporting no deal as an option,” the briefing said.

“What we are calling for is a referendum to confirm a Brexit deal, not to proceed to no deal,” the briefing said.

Would Labour campaign for remain?

Emily ThornberryParliament.tvEmily Thornberry

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry indicated this week that the party – including Jeremy Corbyn – would campaign to remain in a second referendum, which raises the interesting prospect of Jeremy Corbyn, a noted Eurosceptic, having to campaign for a second time for an outcome which many believe he does not support.

“We would have a referendum on whatever deal it is that may or may not pass through parliament and we would be saying to people: ‘Do you want this, or do you want to remain?'” she said.

Thornberry said she would “certainly be campaigning for us to remain” and asked if Corbyn would do the same, replied: “If it’s a choice between a disastrous Tory Brexit or no deal, and remaining, then that is what we will have to do.”

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