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Union heavyweight backs Corbyn as party is divided over Brexit strategy

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
Emily Thornberry and Sir Keir Starmer at the anti-Brexit march in Brighton yesterday

By David Hughes

Labour's divisions over Brexit have deepened as Jeremy Corbyn pushed for the party to delay a decision on whether to support staying in the European Union until after a general election.

A statement backed by Mr Corbyn setting out his position was emailed around the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) and endorsed without a formal meeting, despite opposition from some members of the body.

Unite union boss Len McCluskey, a key ally of the Labour leader, called on the party's senior figures to fall in behind the policy or "step aside".

Labour's plan would see a government led by Mr Corbyn negotiate a new deal with Brussels before calling a referendum.

The party would remain neutral about whether to back remain or the Labour-negotiated deal until a decision was taken at a special conference.

Mr McCluskey told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday: "We must go in to an election united and when we have a policy on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn makes it clear that that is the policy, then that is what leading members of the shadow cabinet should argue for.

"If they find that they can't argue for it because they feel strongly, well, of course they have that right but they should step aside."

On BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Mr Corbyn suggested that it could be possible for the UK to be better off out of the EU.

It "depends on the agreement you have with the European Union outside", he said. "We would want to hold a consultation, a special conference of our party at the point that we have got this offer from the EU, we've got this as a remain - and hopefully reform - option."

He added: "I will go along with whatever decision the party comes to."

But shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry - whose actions were singled out by Mr McCluskey - deputy leader Tom Watson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan insisted the party must throw its weight behind the remain cause now rather than at a special conference after an election.

Mr Watson, who survived a bid to oust him - in part over his views on Europe - told a Labour conference fringe event in Brighton: "Apparently, the reason (Corbyn-supporting Momentum group chief) Jon Lansman tried to abolish me is because of my support for remain.

"Well I have got one message for Jon Lansman, I'm remaining. I might have lost a bit of weight - but I'm no pushover.

"We are not going to have these silly factional shenanigans that have been undermining the unity of this conference delaying us any more."

Yesterday, Mr Corbyn also sought to play down a rift at the heart of his team after one of his closest aides, policy chief Andrew Fisher, resigned. And he claimed he did not know that a motion to scrap Mr Watson's position as deputy leader would be tabled at a meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee on the eve of the party's conference.

Mr Corbyn said he gets on "absolutely fine" with Mr Watson - who has been a prominent critic of the leader - and conceded that while he knew there were "discussions going on about the role of deputy leader", he did not know "that particular motion was going to be put at that time".

The attempt to oust Mr Watson was abandoned on the first day of Labour's conference following an intervention by the party leader.

Yesterday, Mr Khan claimed a "hierarchy" of racism appears to exist within Labour. He attacked the party's handling of allegations of anti-Semitism and asked what purpose Labour served if it could not provide hope and solidarity for the Jewish community.

He told a Jewish Labour Movement fringe event at the party's annual conference: "For me, racism is racism - there are no shades. Anti-Semitism is racism. And my concern about our party is there appears to be a hierarchy when it comes to racism."

He added that "if we the Labour Party can't give people hope and solidarity for the Jewish community then what purpose do we serve?"

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