As polls shift towards Remain, campaigners urge Jeremy Corbyn to change his line.
EVEN as Brexit negotiations are being speeded up, talk of missed deadlines and a possible no-deal outcome seems to grow. That strengthens the groups such as People’s Vote and Best for Britain that are campaigning for a referendum on any Brexit deal, with an option to remain in the European Union instead. Polls on whether people want another vote are inconclusive and often heavily dependent on the question’s wording. But if Parliament cannot agree to a deal and the alternative becomes to leave without one, most voters seem to prefer a new referendum.
Campaigners are focusing their efforts on Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He is a long-standing Eurosceptic. Labour’s position is to respect the result of the 2016 referendum but demand a Brexit that passes six tests, notably to protect jobs and the economy. On this basis it seems sure to oppose any deal that Theresa May brings back from Brussels. If Parliament defeats this, Mr Corbyn wants a general election, not another referendum. The party worries that supporting another referendum might cost it Leave voters, by seeming to align too closely with a Remain-backing establishment. Complicating its position are fears that the real ambition of anti-Brexit (and anti-Corbyn) Labour MPs now is to start a new centrist party.
Yet some senior Labour figures are more equivocal. Both John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, have been careful not to rule out a referendum in any circumstances. A parliamentary rejection of a deal may not trigger an election, and an election might not change the dynamics of Brexit. Hence the case for another vote, which is now endorsed by many of Labour’s leading trade-union backers. Several unions support moves to persuade the Labour conference in late September to call for a new referendum.
One reason for this is the perception that public opinion is shifting. Recent surveys by YouGov, a pollster, seem to support this. Peter Kellner, a former president of YouGov, concludes from the latest evidence that what was a 52-48% Leave majority in June 2016 has switched to a 53-47% Remain one. He says the shift against Brexit is most marked in Labour seats, especially in the north, which voted strongly for Leave. This has led some campaigners to argue that Mr Corbyn’s fuzzy position on Brexit could deprive him of as many as 4m new votes. Labour insiders dismiss such claims. Brexit is widely identified with the Tories in any event. And they think any shift in public opinion is too small to justify a stronger pro-Remain position.