Tom Watson on Brexit: ‘Me leave Labour? It’s leaving me’

Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has said he believes his party would be “leaving me” if it cannot fully endorse a second referendum, hours after giving a speech in which he said it should be the party of remain.

Watson told the BBC that Labour “certainly might lose some votes” for backing a referendum, but would pay “a very high electoral price” for not taking a clear position on Brexit.

Asked if he might be prepared to leave the party without a clear change of direction, he said, “I’m never going to leave the Labour party,” but then added: “Sometimes I wonder whether the Labour party is leaving me.”

Watson said he had “no doubt” Labour’s position would change at the party’s annual conference in September, but said he feared “by then it will be too late”.

The deputy leader’s interview followed a speech he gave at a pro-EU thinktank arguing that Labour needed to make a better case for continued EU membership – even at this late hour.

Watson’s intervention was immediately criticised by the party chair Ian Lavery, a vociferous opponent of a second referendum. “Brexit has turned this country into a toxic nation. However, ignoring the 17.4 million leave voters isn’t politically smart nor indeed particularly democratic. Is it?” Lavery tweeted after Watson’s speech.

Watson said that no one should question his motivation in pushing for the change.

“You may disagree with me fundamentally, and I respect that,” he said. “I think for the Labour party, having knocked on doors up and down the country in the local and European elections, having spoken to many thousands of Labour voters, many of whom are lifelong Labour party members who told me they were voting for the parties at the election because of the lack of clarity on our position.”

In his speech at the Centre for European Reform, Watson also took a veiled swipe at some Labour MPs and union officials, including Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, who have cautioned against a referendum, suggesting they had not made the case for how the EU had helped their towns and workers.

“For those on the left to fail to acknowledge that is to rewrite history,” he said.“It is no ‘boss’s club’, it is both an engine of progress and a backstop against regressive and repressive governments.”

He said his party needed to become the home for remainers after European election results that had seen the party squeezed by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

“European is who we are and who we have always been,” he said. “Our members are remain. Our values are remain. Our hearts are remain. We need our Labour party to be true to who we are and be loud and proud in support of Europe.”

Watson said that a new public vote was the only option now that parliament and the government had failed to break the impasse. “We put the question back to the people because parliament and government – as we reach the three-year mark – have proved utterly incapable of implementing Brexit, and shows no more sign of doing so now than ever,” he said.

“The notion that it’s in some way undemocratic to let the people put an end to this crisis because, after three years, parliament and government cannot, is absurd. And if you want Brexit, and you believe there is still a majority for it in the UK, then a public vote will break the deadlock and deliver the Brexit you want.”

Watson suggested the party needed to step up its campaigning for a public vote. “Now is the time to speak out more loudly than ever, before any further irreparable damage is done,” he said.

At a fractious meeting of Labour MPs last Monday, Jeremy Corbyn was urged to move faster to change the party’s policy. However, a special meeting of Labour’s shadow cabinet due to take place to discuss Brexit policy on Monday was cancelled because “a number of colleagues [were] unable to attend”.