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“Labour splits on Brexit have been laid bare once more after Sir Keir Starmer appeared to suggest that pushing for a general election was no longer a “credible option” for the party to pursue” – Emilio Casalicchio; PoliticsHome
The Shadow Brexit Secretary said the party was now only pursuing two alternatives – a compromise deal based on proposals contained in a letter from Jeremy Corbyn to Theresa May last week, or a second referendum.
But he was slapped down by Jeremy Corbyn’s office, which insisted pressing for an early election remained the party’s “preferred option”.
“I have said in the last few weeks that in reality for the Labour party the only credible options now left are a close economic relationship – that’s the sort of relationship we spelt out in the letter to the Prime Minister last week – or a public vote.”
When asked about the remarks, a spokesman for Mr Corbyn said: “The options are a general election, which remains our preferred option, some form of agreement along the lines Jeremy laid out in his letter to Theresa May, and failing that a public vote remains an option on the table.
“Keir agrees that a general election as laid out in our conference policy is our preferred option.”
Mr Corbyn wrote to Mrs May earlier this week to say Labour could back her on Brexit if she commits to a permanent customs union with the EU, among other demands.
Reports emerged on Monday that Sir Keir had fought for a line in the letter about backing a second EU referendum – but that his calls were ignored by the leader’s office.
Sir Keir refused to be drawn on the reports this morning. He told the Today programme: “I’m not going into the ins and outs of the drafting of the letter.”
A trio of shadow cabinet members piled pressure on Jeremy Corbyn by saying the party must stick by its pledge to “campaign for a public vote” if the prime minister holds firm and Labour fails to force a general election.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said backing for a Final Say referendum was the only “remaining option” if Labour’s own withdrawal plan is defeated, adding: “That is a very important commitment. And it is one we will keep.”
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, echoed the view, saying: “If she refuses a general election and to change her deal, then of course our policy is that we will go for a people’s vote.”
And Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, speaking at the same conference, told a questioner urging quicker support for a referendum: “I am tempted to go there with you.”
The calls came after Mr Corbyn angered some Final Say supporters by saying Labour would only consider backing a new referendum if the UK was on the brink of the “disaster of no-deal”.
They suspect him of planning to table repeat votes of no confidence, to try to trigger an election, as a device to avoid ever grasping the nettle of a further public vote.
Speaking to The Independentafter his speech, Sir Keir declined to set a deadline for the dramatic policy shift, with events in parliament over the next two weeks impossible to predict.
But he said: “I am deeply conscious that there are only 69 days to go before the 29 March, therefore the window now is quite short.”
Sir Keir also vowed the decision would not be taken by a closed circle, saying: “It is very important that, firstly, we hear what everybody has to say and, secondly, that we do it in a united way.”
He insisted he and Mr Corbyn were “united”, adding: “We discuss this on a regular basis. People are always trying to find differences but we stand together behind that motion [on when to support a referendum].”
The issue will come to a head after Monday, when MPs will be free to lay a string of amendments to the prime minister’s “next steps” statement, following the devastating defeat of her deal last week.
They will include Labour’s alternative plan, for a customs union, a ‘strong” single market relationship and protection of workers’, environmental and consumer standards.
There will also be a Final Say amendment, probably to be tabled by Conservative Sarah Wollaston, but it cannot pass the Commons without the support of Labour’s leadership.
Ms May appears to have abandoned attempts to find a cross-party consensus, ruling out any significant changes to her deal ahead of Monday’s statement.
Instead, she spent Friday meeting cabinet ministers – which only underlined the deep split between those urging compromise and those warning the Tory party will implode if she makes concessions.
On Saturday, Sir Keir told a conference there were only “two remaining options”, the first being the government accepting a “close economic relationship with the EU”, as Labour proposed.
“Secondly, as our conference motion sets out, the option of a public vote,” he said.
He added: “I know there is significant support for this in our membership, in many trade unions, among a number of Labour MPs……this has to be an option for Labour.”
Mr Watson added, on a second referendum: “That might be the only way that the insurance policy part of our conference resolution can help break the impasse in those Brexit negotiations.”
But Ms Thornberry warned that, if Labour ended up backing a public vote, it must not repeat the “dreadful mistakes of the Remain campaign”.
Earlier, John Major urged Theresa May to give her ministers free votes on all the Brexit options, along with other MPs, and relegate herself to being a “mediator” to solve the crisis.
The Commons had “killed” her deal and she must recognise that attempts to revive it with minor “tinkering” – while sticking to her strict ‘red lines’ – were doomed to failure.
Calling for a radical “act of statesmanship”, the former Conservative prime minister said: “All party leaders would permit a free vote so we can get an honest representation of parliament.”
“And that is in the prime minister’s interest for this reason – it’s the only way to get an absolutely honest answer from members of parliament.”
Sir John added: “If cabinet can’t agree and parliament can’t agree, the only option is a second referendum.”
The amendment to reduce that to three sitting days quickly drew support from pro-EU MPs from across the political divide, including top Tories Oliver Letwin and Jo Johnson, and won enough support to defeat the Government.
After the result was announced, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said ministers had “run down the clock and increased the risk of a no deal Brexit”.