Labour MPs who want a second referendum are threatening to table their own motion calling for one next week if their frontbench fails to do so.
Jeremy Corbyn is expected to call for a vote of no confidence in the government once Theresa May’s deal is defeated in the Commons this evening. The Labour leadership has refused to do this until now because it doesn’t want to hold a vote it is certain to lose, but the pressure has now grown so great for a vote that it will be extremely difficult for Corbyn to dodge it, even though the DUP have said they will stop the government from falling so long as there is a chance that the backstop will not pass.
The party is now dropping hints that it may try to stage a series of no-confidence votes in the government, rather than moving straight to calling for a second referendum. Party policy agreed at the Labour conference is that if a general election bid fails, Labour will then move on to backing a ‘People’s Vote’. But repeatedly tabling no-confidence motions will naturally slow this up. Last night after the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said that ‘A public vote is one of the options: [conference policy] doesn’t say it’s the preferred option or the default option.’
Pressure is now growing on Sir Keir Starmer to consider his position as Shadow Brexit Secretary, with a number of People’s Vote-supporting Labour MPs saying that he should resign by the end of this week if the party hasn’t turned to a second referendum by then. One says: ‘Keir has enabled this constructive ambiguity and prevarication. He got a standing ovation at conference when he said that nobody is ruling out Remain as an option. Now he needs to take responsibility.’
Those MPs are also very damning of colleagues who have chosen to join the push from Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin for a new EU withdrawal Bill which will give Parliament control over the Brexit process. ‘These MPs, like Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, just want a soft Brexit and they should admit that,’ says a senior Labour MP. ‘There is a lot of disquiet from the People’s Vote campaigners about this idea because it comes from Michael Gove.’ It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that Gove is not behind the Boles plan, but it is a theory repeated to me by a number of Labour MPs who want a second referendum.
If the Labour frontbench doesn’t table a motion calling for a second referendum, then backbenchers are threatening to do it for them. One says: ‘There’s no reason that I, or other MPs, can’t put down an amendment calling for a People’s Vote. And then the question on Monday will be what whipping arrangements Nick Brown [Labour chief whip] announces for that amendment. Anything other than a three-line whip in support of it will be a betrayal of party members.’
These backbenchers are very coy about whether they would consider their own position within the Labour Party if Starmer refuses to resign and the leadership continues to prevaricate with a series of no-confidence votes. But given so many of them have made a second referendum a key issue, they cannot just make this about the position of those in power in the party: they need to decide whether or not they want to stay under Corbyn’s leadership.