Brexit: Angry MPs accuse Corbyn of ‘stitch-up’ to stop Labour backing Remain in second referendum

Rob Merrick

Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of a Labour conference “stitch-up” to avoid a defeat that would prevent him ‘staying neutral’ in a fresh Brexit referendum.

A new policy statement, likely to be agreed on Sunday, would avoid a decision until next year, until after a “sensible” withdrawal deal has been negotiated within three months of winning a general election.

Only then would Labour decide its stance at a second referendum to be held within a further three months – possibly next May, if Boris Johnson holds a snap election in November.

But pro-EU MPs and activists protested that the move was a clear attempt to stop them forcing Mr Corbyn to adopt an outright pro-Remain stance at the conference getting underway in Brighton.

They had vowed to force an immediate showdown, armed with the 90 per cent of local party motions on Brexit which oppose the leader’s hopes of sitting on the fence.

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Critically, because the policy statement comes from the ruling national executive committee (NEC), it will – if passed – strike out those other 81 activist options.

Clive Lewis, a Labour Treasury spokesman, said: “This move is just plain wrong. How can this be defended?”

“Here we are, with a leadership apparently determined to shut down democratic debate on the crucial issue of the day, probably relying on union bloc votes to outvote the members.”

And Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a pro-EU backbencher, said: “This conference is our one chance before an election to get out of the fudge – we cannot allow that to be taken away from us in some procedural stitch up.”

The fresh controversy blew up within minutes of the bitter row over the attempt to topple Tom Watson being settled with a victory for the deputy leader and Corbyn critic.

The new clash sets the scene for a repeat of the marathon five-hour “compositing” meeting at last year’s Labour conference, which ended in Brexit policy being fudged.

However, the NEC statement will trump whatever that composite meeting decides – unless it is defeated later in the week on the conference floor.

Mr Lewis called for that to happen if necessary, adding: “If it passes, delegates should mobilise to vote against the NEC statement so the Brexit motions can be heard and democratically debated.”

Earlier, Emily Thornberry split with Mr Corbyn by calling for Labour to allow a Johnson-secured Brexit deal to pass – provided the public has the Final Say in a referendum.

The shadow foreign secretary became the highest-profile supporter of the so-called Kyle-Wilson plan, put forward by two Labour backbenchers.

“I think it's something we would have to consider. We would have to consider it seriously,” Ms Thornberry said.

She also criticised Mr Corbyn’s intention to ‘stay neutral’ in a fresh referendum, saying: “I think it wouldn't be right for Labour to have no opinion on such a big decision.”

The leadership’s blueprint would see a one-day special conference decide – eventually – Labour’s campaigning position, putting it in the hands of the unions and grassroots.

If it wins an election, the party would seek a deal including a customs union, a “close relationship with the single market”, guarantees of workers’ rights and environmental protections, and membership of joint bodies on climate change, counter-terrorism and medicines.

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