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Labour conference begins in confusion over Brexit and Tom Watson

22 September 2019

3:38 PM

22 September 2019

3:38 PM

Welcome to Labour’s Twilight Zone, its ruling NEC, whose members don’t know whether they have or haven’t approved a draft policy statement in favour of a referendum combined with militant agnosticism on Leave versus Remain.

Some members of the NEC said they opposed the policy, because they see it as a backdoor route – orchestrated by Milne, McCluskey and Murphy – to move the party towards becoming a Brexit party all over again.

Yesterday the NEC chair Wendy Nichols asked for amendments to the statement.

There were too many for a compromise to be found.

Another meeting was scheduled for 8am this morning, and then summarily cancelled after 11pm last night.

So NEC members now don’t know whether the draft policy statement – which would postpone the choice between Leave or Remain till three months after a general election – is or is not the official position.

All of which probably means there will be a titanic struggle here in Brighton between the Remainers, led by Watson, Beckett, Starmer, Thornberry et al on the one hand and McCluskey and the Lexiters – the Labour Brexiters – on the other over whether the party should now make a commitment that in any future referendum it would oppose any form of Brexit.

What is perhaps nuts is that NEC members don’t even know whether said policy statement would or should be submitted to conference for a confirmatory vote.

And if you think it absurd that Labour can’t make up its mind on the issue that drowns out all others, that is not the end of the ambiguity around what the NEC is doing.

After Lansman’s failed coup against Watson, NEC members tells me they don’t know, amazingly, whether or not they have approved a new policy that the deputy leader would no longer automatically become leader if the elected leader quit or fell under a bus or whether all they’ve done is approve a consultation on ending an automatic transfer of power to the deputy.

This really matters. Because if Corbyn were to quit – and there are colleagues of his who think that could happen much sooner than Corbyn suggested in his BBC interview this morning – it matters whether Watson were interim leader or whether the NEC could appoint a candidate it feels would work to keep alight the Corbyn flame.

Finally there is a third and perhaps more profound source of anxiety about the position of the Labour Party, though on this occasion not directly stemming from a statement approved (or not) by the NEC – and that is whether Labour wants and would endeavour to bring about an election before a referendum or would prefer a referendum (or some other resolution of the Brexit uncertainty) in advance of an election.

Everything that Corbyn or his closest allies say is they want the general election soon and first.

Arguably a clear majority of Labour MPs now believe Corbyn’s preference for an election prior to Brexit being sorted is a case of red turkeys charging towards the Christmas slaughterhouse.

Led by Tom Watson, they now want a referendum either before the election or simultaneous with it (thus giving us two monumentally important choices – for government and for in or out of the EU – on the same day, heaven help us).

So for the avoidance of doubt, Corbyn’s Labour is as divided, confused, faction-riven and disorganised as Johnson’s Tories.

If you are humming the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘What have I done to deserve this?’, join the club (no, I am not ashamed to show my age).

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog.


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