Sir Keir Starmer battled yesterday to keep alive the prospect that Labour could ever support a second Brexit referendum, amid a furious response in the party to Jeremy Corbyn’s offer to back Theresa May if she relaxes her red lines.
Labour MPs and anti-Brexit activists reacted with anger after Corbyn wrote to the prime minister on Wednesday night, laying down his conditions for supporting her deal without mentioning the possibility of a “public vote”.
The party’s leadership scrambled to soothe MPs, with Corbyn’s office messaging them to insist the letter “builds on Labour conference policy” and that the party would “retain the option of campaigning for a public vote”.
But tensions continued to run high. The former leadership contender Owen Smith said the idea that he could be asked to “row in behind” government policy meant he was now considering resigning from the Labour party, and the shadow treasury minister, Clive Lewis, insisted: “I won’t vote for Brexit.”
Lewis said: “I’m on the frontbench because I live in hope that the party will get to the bit of our conference policy where it supports a people’s vote.”
Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, regarded by many anti-Brexit MPs as their best hope of pushing Labour in the direction they favour, tweeted yesterday morning that Corbyn’s letter did not “take the option of a public vote off the table”.
Matthew Pennycook, a member of Starmer’s shadow Brexit team, added: “Either May accepts them [Labour’s Brexit demands] in full and commits to enshrining them in law before exit day or we must move to support a public vote. No other credible options left to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit.”
Starmer helped to draft the letter to May, which was meant as a way of fleshing out Labour’s policy. But key Labour advisers including the strategy director, Seumas Milne, were also involved.
“Keir wrote it, Seumas edited it,” one shadow cabinet member claimed. But a senior Labour source said others also had a hand in the process, and insisted “it was Jeremy’s letter”.
Corbyn campaigned for remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, in line with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of party members, but has consistently said that his party will honour the result.
Pressure is coming from both wings of the divided party, with several frontbenchers recently warning that they could resign if Corbyn tried to whip them to support a referendum.
Backers of a “people’s vote” have spent much the past year trying to win round the Labour leadership to the idea of supporting a fresh poll. But a carefully crafted party conference motion promising it was an “option” that would be “on the table” is as close as they have come.
Some regard Starmer, together with the deputy leader, Tom Watson, as the most likely champion of a referendum in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, but with the 29 March deadline looming they have become increasingly despondent. “Keir is a bit of a windsock,” one backbench MP complained.
The MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, who is widely assumed by colleagues to be close to resigning the Labour whip, tweeted in response to the letter: “This is not opposition, it is the facilitation of a deal which will make this country poorer. A strong, coherent Labour alternative to this shabby, Tory Brexit is absent – it has been since this parliament began. Totally demoralising.”
The sour mood in the parliamentary party was exacerbated by news that the Liverpool Wavertree MP, Luciana Berger, who has campaigned strongly for Labour to take antisemitism more seriously, is facing the threat of a vote of no confidence from her local party.
One of two motions tabled against her, according to the Liverpool Echo, says: “Instead of fighting for a Labour government, our MP is continually using the media to criticise the man we all want to be prime minister.”
The no-confidence motions are due to be considered on 17 February.
‘A strong, coherent Labour alternative to this shabby, Tory Brexit is absent … Totally demoralising’ Chuka Umunna Labour MP.