Labour should offer referendum on Brexit terms, MPs say

Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart
The MPs for the remain-supporting constituencies of Norwich South and York Central said no one had approved May’s Brexit ‘destination’. Photograph: Hannah McKay/PA

Labour should be prepared to offer the public a referendum on the terms of a final Brexit deal, two former senior members of the party’s shadow cabinet have said.

Clive Lewis and Rachael Maskell, who were until recently the shadow business and environment secretaries, claimed giving people the chance to “ratify or reject” the final agreement was not tantamount to repeating last year’s in/out vote.

“The decision by the Labour party leadership to rule out a second referendum in the form of a simple rerun of last June’s poll was correct. That ship has, for better or for worse, sailed,” they said, in an article in the Guardian.

However, the MPs for the remain-supporting constituencies of Norwich South and York Central argued that no one had approved May’s Brexit “destination”. They claimed the prime minister’s decision to leave the single market could have severe economic consequences and suggested her government was pursuing a “pumped-up free-market alternative with Donald Trump”.

“Giving the British people a chance to ‘seal the deal’ with a vote on the final terms of the Brexit negotiations is not asking the same question twice. How can it be?” they wrote.

“We stand on the precipice of a new and vastly changed political and economic reality. If they really believe their own rhetoric, even Tory Brexiters should welcome a chance to put their Brexit before the people and get their support.”

The pair said failure to seek a mandate for the Conservatives’ Brexit once a deal was done, or even for a Labour Brexit, would leave the country “hopelessly divided” long into the future.

They claimed that democratic approval could not be guaranteed in other ways because May’s government was not providing politicians with a meaningful say in parliament.

They argued that there was no hope of the final deal being tested in a general election because May’s decision to hold one in June means there will not now be another chance until 2022, long after Brexit has been completed.

Their intervention has echoes of the Liberal Democrat pledge on a fresh vote, which is being used as a fiercely pro-EU pitch at the most passionate remain supporters.

However, it is not in line with what Corbyn and the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, have said on the issue, as they tried to make clear that Labour would deliver on the result of the EU referendum.

Starmer ruled out another referendum even if May failed to negotiate any deal and Britain was forced to crash out of the EU, during an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston.

A Labour source said: “Labour has been clear that we accept the referendum result but will prevent a reckless Tory Brexit. We will put the economy first, prioritise the single market and customs union, protect workers’ rights and the environment. We will give certainty to EU nationals and a meaningful vote to parliament on the final Brexit deal.

“Labour are not calling for a second referendum and this will not be in Labour’s manifesto.”

However, MPs like Lewis and Maskell, who resigned from their frontbench positions over Labour’s decision to back the prime minister on article 50, believe there could be hope further down the line.

They point to comments by the shadow Brexit minister, Paul Blomfield, who claimed Labour was a party of democrats, which could change its position in the future if there was popular demand for a second referendum.

In their article, Lewis and Maskell said the previous Tory leader, David Cameron, had made no plans whatsoever for the prospect of Brexit, so it was only now that its form was taking shape.

“In our constituencies of Norwich South and York Central, thousands of jobs and livelihoods will be jeopardised by the course Theresa May and her crew seem to be setting,” they said. “And after years of their own brutal cuts to the civil service, they now find themselves without the expertise needed to agree the right trade deals for Britain in the time they now have available and the new world that they face. Scientific research, finance and technology all face upheaval, instability and uncertainty outside the single market or an equivalent.”

The MPs said a Labour deal with the EU would be different from the Conservative one, with more focus on jobs and workers’ rights as well as environmental protections. “And the public may want the final say over a Labour Brexit too,” they added.

“So we believe that they should be given the choice of which direction their country takes, once our alternatives can be clearly seen. Anything less will see our country hopelessly divided long into the future – something that surely no government would want.”

A senior Conservative source said: “This is further evidence, if more was needed, that Labour and the Lib Dems would do a stitch-up to weaken our hand in the Brexit negotiations. It is clear that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is nonsensical and couldn’t deliver for Britain when it comes to Brexit negotiations.”

Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary Tom Brake said: “It’s good to see Clive Lewis and Rachael Maskell backing our position, but this doesn’t change the fact that Labour has given Theresa May a blank cheque for a hard Brexit and are refusing to give the British people the final say. We are the only party fighting to stop a disastrous hard Brexit and to give people their say over what comes next.”

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