After Theresa May appeared before the Commons to reveal that her Brexit Plan B looks an awful lot like her Brexit Plan A, MPs now have a chance to try and force the Prime Minister to change path. Next week, MPs will vote on May’s Brexit motion – along with a series of amendments submitted by MPs. A range of amendments have so far been submitted, with Labour’s Yvette Cooper attempting to take No Deal off the table (meaning Article 50 would be extended until a deal had been agreed upon) and Hilary Benn calling for indicative votes on four Brexit options.
However, the amendment that has caused the most excitement this evening has been tabled by Labour. The party’s amendment calls for MPs to be given the chance to vote on different Brexit options – which must include (a) Labour’s alternative Brexit plan of a comprehensive customs union (b) whether to have a ‘public vote’ on a ‘proposition’ that is supported by a majority in the Commons. This latter option has been widely read as Corbyn moving closer to backing a second referendum. While the party agreed at its conference this year to keep all options on the table including a second referendum, the mention of it alongside the current policy has been seen as a sign the party may actually move to back a second vote. This is the first time Labour has asked its MPs to consider the prospect.
So, is Corbyn close to backing a second referendum? Before People’s Vote campaigners crack the champagne out, there is reason to suspect that the eurosceptic Corbyn is not there yet. For one, it’s unlikely to pass given the Tory Remainers won’t go near a Labour branded amendment. What’s more, the amendment does not actually commit the leadership or front bench to actually backing such a vote were it to take place. Secondly, if MPs were to vote on a second referendum on Monday alongside other Brexit options, the expectation is they would fall well short of a majority in its favour. Last week, 71 Labour MPs came out in favour of a second vote – even with the SNP and Lib Dem votes added that is nowhere near the kind of figure one would need to show it as a leading option.
It follows that the amendment could prove to be a case of clever politics from the Leader’s Office. Corbyn is under increasing pressure from a pro-EU membership to back a so-called People’s Vote but his advisors are concerned that any such move would isolate Leave voters in Labour marginals and deprive the party of a majority at the next election (I explain why here). Thanks to this amendment Labour look as though they are considering it and want MPs to have a say on the idea. Yet unless there is a surprise twist between now and Monday, there is little chance of the Commons coming out in favour of one. Pro-EU MPs are split between a second referendum, a Norway style Brexit and Labour’s current customs union policy. As Corbyn’s team will be well aware, the numbers for a second vote currently aren’t there.