There were hopes among pro-Remain MPs that this year’s Labour conference would mark a sea change in the party’s Brexit policy. Instead, what’s been served up is a Brexit fudge that ultimately fails to soften the party position.
At last year’s conference, the Labour leader managed to keep Brexit off the conference floor. This year around it wasn’t possible with pro-EU members and unions – keen for a second referendum – voting for Brexit in the priority ballot. After a six-hour meeting to compose the motion last night, a fudge was agreed. The statement that is to be voted on says that if Theresa May’s deal doesn’t pass and there is no early election, all options will be left on the table. It’s hardly the clear manifesto pledge of a second referendum that many members and MPs had been pushing for.
What’s more, that fudge has been watered down further as of this morning. John McDonnell risked antagonising supporters by claiming that even if Labour did back a second referendum, the choice would not be Leave or Remain. Instead, it would be to take May’s deal or head for ‘no deal’. In a ‘no deal’ scenario, McDonnell says there would be an early election, Labour would takeover and start negotiating all over again. This is a message that was echoed by Unite’s Len McCluskey last night – and hinted at by Corbyn on Marr. However, it has still come as a shock to delegates who think their motion refers to a referendum in which Remain stays on the table.
So, what is Labour’s Brexit policy? It appears to consist of respecting the result while also trying to use Brexit as a mechanism to bring about an early election. Despite the mixed messages this week, it’s clear the eurosceptic Labour leadership have no plans to soften the party’s policy as members have requested. The conference motion does not tie Corbyn’s hands on Brexit.
If the Leader’s office persist with a ‘deal or no deal’ referendum offer then things begin to look up for Theresa May when it comes to getting her deal through. If pro-EU MPs think that there is little chance of a vote to stay in the EU, they may well decide to back May’s softer Brexit in the belief that it is better than leaving on WTO terms. In short, John McDonell may have just helped the beleaguered Prime Minister out.