Jeremy Corbyn hit back at Tony Blair after the former Labour prime minister advised voters to consider backing Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidates in June’s general election, if they promise to have an open mind about the terms of the final Brexit deal.
As Labour embarks on a tough election campaign, Blair urged the public to set party allegiance aside, in order to avoid the 8 June poll becoming a “steamroller election”, and maximise the number of MPs willing to vote against a “hard Brexit” when Theresa May brings the deal back to the House of Commons.
A spokesman for Corbyn said: “On 9 June, we will either have a Labour government or a Tory one. If you want Brexit to be used to turn Britain into a low-wage tax haven, vote Tory. If you want a Britain for the many not the few after Brexit, vote Labour. The choice is clear.”
In an interview on the BBC’s World This Weekend, Blair said that if Theresa May won a landslide, as the polls currently suggest, the Conservatives would read it as a mandate for “Brexit at any costs” – and voters concerned about the risks of leaving the EU should press every candidate to answer whether they had an open mind about whether the final deal was in Britain’s interests.
“The absolutely central question at this general election is less who is the prime minister on 9 June, and more what is the nature of the mandate, and in particular – because otherwise frankly this is a steamroller election – is it possible that we can return as many members of parliament as possible to parliament that are going to keep an open mind on this Brexit negotiation until we see the final terms?”
Asked if that could mean voting Lib Dem in a lot of cases, he said: “What I’m advocating may mean that. It may mean voting Labour. It may mean, by the way, that they vote Tory, for candidates who are prepared to give this commitment.”
He added: “This is something that’s bigger than party allegiance, in this particular election.” He said he would campaign to ensure that candidates in every constituency were put under pressure to answer the question: “Will you back Brexit at any costs, or are you prepared to say, this deal is not in the interests of the country?”
He said: “I’m not going to advocate people vote tactically. What I’m saying is they should vote on an informed basis on this issue.”
Blair said he was so concerned about the prospect of Britain plunging out of the single market that he could even return to frontline politics himself, saying: “I look at the political scene at the moment and I almost feel motivated to go right back into it.”
He added that he would support the efforts of Best for Britain, the tactical voting initiative created by Gina Miller, who won the supreme court case that forced the government to hold a parliamentary vote before triggering article 50.
But Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer insisted the best way to avoid giving Theresa May a blank cheque in the forthcoming negotiations was to vote Labour.
“This election will be crucial in shaping how Britain approaches Brexit negotiations, and there is a clear choice on the ballot paper. A Labour government is the only way to prevent a Tory hard Brexit that would put jobs, the economy and workers’ rights at risk.” He added: “A vote for Labour is a vote against a Tory hard Brexit and for a new approach”.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna said: “Tony Blair is wrong to suggest in any way that voters should look elsewhere and form some anti-Brexit alliance. No ifs, no buts: voting Labour and maximising our position in Parliament is the best way to stop Theresa May’s hard Brexit. What the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have done to our public services in government since 2010 and the cuts to support for those on low incomes, the disabled and others in need is utterly unforgivable. Whatever common ground Labour people may have with them on Brexit, we cannot ignore or forgive this.”
Blair is a hate-figure for some on the left of the party, and his intervention was viewed as deeply unhelpful by senior Labour figures, who have been trying to toe a careful line on Brexit that alienates neither anxious remainers, nor leave voters in its traditional heartland seats.
Moderate Conservatives expressed bemusement at the idea Blair might give them his imprimatur. One pro-remain backbencher said, “thanks Tony, but no thanks”.
Steve Baker, chair of the pro-Brexit European research group of Conservative MPs said: “Any candidate would be daft to want Tony Blair’s backing. It’s time to drop this ill-defined nonsense about so-called ‘hard’ Brexit and unite behind Theresa May’s sensible plans to make a success of leaving the EU.”
The former Labour leader stressed that he would vote Labour himself and had always done so. But he appeared to be sailing dangerously close to Labour party rules which ban members from supporting candidates from rival political parties.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who stepped down as Corbyn’s spokesman a month ago, tweeted that Blair “should be kicked out of the party”.
Should be kicked out of the party https://t.co/zT7Cbl067V— Matt Zarb-Cousin (@mattzarb) April 23, 2017
Clause I, section 4 of the membership section in Labour’s rulebook says: “A member of the party who joins and/ or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member.”
Blair said: “I will vote Labour, I would always vote Labour, and there are many excellent Labour candidates throughout the country. But that’s not the point for me. The point for me is, whether I’m Labour or I’m not Labour, even if there’s Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, I’ll work with anyone to get this argument across in the country.”
Chris Leslie, one of the Labour backbenchers who tabled a number of amendments to the Brexit bill, said Blair’s argument, that May must not be given a blank cheque for the Brexit talks, was one he and many of his colleagues would be making on the doorsteps over the next six weeks.
“I personally think this is going to be one of the main arguments Labour MPs can make, which is, don’t give Theresa May a majority where she gets a free ride,” he said.
A Lib Dem spokesperson said: “Tony Blair’s intervention today shows something: this election is your chance to change Britain’s future. If you want to avoid a hard Brexit you need to support the Liberal Democrats. The Tories have chosen a divisive hard Brexit. Labour have gone along with it. Only the Liberal Democrats are fighting it.”