Jeremy Corbyn is to be urged by a group of Labour MPs not to “torpedo” the prospect of a Brexit deal with Theresa May by insisting on a second referendum.
The MPs, including Stephen Kinnock and Gloria De Piero, are set to send the Labour leader a letter early next week setting out their “deep-seated reservations about a second referendum”, which they believe would be “divisive but … not decisive”.
They also express a worry that insisting on a second referendum would cause talks with the government to collapse, arguing that Conservative MPs would never back such an idea.
Labour has committed to keeping a second referendum on the table as an option to stop a “damaging Tory Brexit”, but there are conflicting views at the top of the party about whether to insist on one if Corbyn can secure a deal with the Conservatives.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has been at the forefront of making the case for a confirmatory second referendum on any Brexit deal, but others are worried this would lose Labour support in some of its leave-voting heartlands.
About 30 to 40 Labour MPs are thought to be strongly opposed to a second referendum, while more than 80 are actively campaigning in favour of one.
The letter, which is circulating on WhatsApp groups used by Labour MPs, says: “Insistence on inserting a second referendum into the process would almost certainly cause the talks to collapse. We must not allow what some colleagues see as their ideal outcome (ie, a second referendum) to block the emergence of a pragmatic, sensible, bridge-building Brexit deal that a clear majority of Labour MPs would support.”
It adds: “It is unrealistic, for a whole range of reasons that don’t need to be rehearsed here, to expect the prime minister to whip Conservative MPs to back a deal that includes a second referendum. It is simply not going to happen.
Making explicit the position he held since the Brexit vote, Jeremy Corbyn says Labour will respect the result of the referendum. "I think we've had a referendum, a decision has been made, you have to respect the decision people made."
Wary of upsetting voters in leave areas, Labour's manifesto for the 2017 general election declares: "Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first."
Over five gruelling hours, Labour's internal contradictions over Brexit are distilled into a conference composite motion that makes the party's priority to seek a general election but, failing that, says a referendum should not be ruled out.
Chuka Umunna and remain MPs from both Labour and the Conservatives quit to form the Independent Group, citing Brexit as a major motivating factor.
Labour backs attempts by backbenchers to keep the option of a public vote on the table to stop a no-deal Brexit or May's deal. When all options considered by parliament fall, Labour enters into Brexit talks with the government but says May must move on a customs union if they are to succeed.
“We are therefore concerned that by insisting on a second referendum as a pre-condition for the deal we could in fact end up torpedoing the talks altogether. It is vital that the public is left in no doubt about the fact that Labour is participating in the negotiations in good faith, and we believe that it would be a mistake if we were to start introducing our own red lines at the very moment that the prime minister appears to be softening hers.”
A previous letter from 25 Labour MPs was sent in early April, urging Corbyn to agree a deal with Theresa May and not request a second referendum, but the supporters of the new letter are hoping to gain more signatures.
Talks between Labour and the government have not progressed far this week, as the Conservatives are yet to move on any of their red lines that are essential to Labour, including a customs union and preventing a future Tory leader unpicking elements of any deal.
Corbyn warned on Tuesday that Brexit talks with the government were faltering because of a Tory desire for post-withdrawal deregulation, including as part of a US trade deal.
He said Labour had been putting forward a robust case for a customs union during the talks over the past week but suggested he feared the two sides would not find common ground.
“There has to be access to European markets and above all there has to be a dynamic relationship to protect the conditions and rights that we’ve got for environment and consumer workplace rights,” he said. “We’ve put those cases very robustly to the government and there’s no agreement as yet.”
The talks are expected to resume at a high level next week after a series of working groups on issues such as security and environmental standards – without detailed discussion of the customs union.