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Labour rejects call to back public vote on any Brexit deal

Jeremy Corbyn’s party will fight the European elections on a more limited referendum pledge.

(Danny Lawson/PA)
(Danny Lawson/PA)

Jeremy Corbyn has seen off an attempt to commit the party to a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal.

The proposal was defeated in a marathon meeting of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee to finalise the Labour platform for next month’s European elections.

The party’s manifesto will instead stick to the wording of a motion passed by Labour conference last year, which keeps a public vote on the table as a last option.

A party source made clear that this committed Labour to back a fresh vote only if the party cannot either win the changes it wants to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement or secure a general election.

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Tom Watson arrives for the NEC meeting (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Deputy leader Tom Watson, who has led calls for a more positive stance on a second referendum, left the six-hour meeting without comment, saying only that the manifesto would be published early next week.

Mr Watson had earlier walked out of a shadow cabinet meeting after being told it would not be shown the proposed wording of the manifesto commitment.

Some 115 MPs and MEPs signed a letter to NEC members organised by the Love Socialism, Hate Brexit group urging them to explicitly back a referendum in the manifesto.

The change was backed by a number of major unions, including the GMB, Unison and Usdaw.

And 34 of Labour’s 70 candidates in the May 23 European elections have pledged to campaign for a referendum and then back Remain if a vote is called.

A Labour source said: “The NEC agreed the manifesto which will be fully in line with Labour’s existing policy – to support Labour’s alternative plan, and if we can’t get the necessary changes to the Government’s deal, or a general election, to back the option of a public vote.”

Leaving the meeting, Mr Watson said only: “We’re publishing our European manifesto early next week.

“You can ask me as many questions as you want but you’ll have to wait till next week.”

Mr Corbyn left party HQ by a back entrance and was seen being driven away in a people carrier.

His car was momentarily blocked by pro-Remain protesters.

The founder of the Corbyn-backing Momentum movement Jon Lansman said only: “Good meeting.”

Sources from inside the room characterised the meeting of the 41-member NEC, which brings together representatives of the party leadership, MPs and members as well as unions, as “respectful, constructive and comradely throughout”.

And Mr Watson insisted there was “no rancour at all” in his walkout from the earlier shadow cabinet meeting, saying: “I politely asked if the shadow cabinet were going to see the draft words and was told ‘no’. So I left to walk to the NEC.”

A Labour spokesman said that the European election manifesto would be published “soon”.

“Labour is the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain,” said the spokesman.

“We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories.”

The meeting came amid increasingly positive mood music surrounding cross-party Brexit talks with Labour, with the Government understood to be hoping a conclusion may be reached towards the middle of next week.

De facto deputy prime minister David Lidington told Cabinet that talks on Monday were “serious and constructive”.

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Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer led Labour’s team in cross-party Brexit talks on Monday (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

And Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “Further talks will now be scheduled in order to bring the process toward a conclusion.”

Mrs May has set out two possible outcomes from the cross-party talks – a compromise deal to get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament or a series of indicative votes in the Commons backed by both major parties.

It remains unclear whether the parties will be able to bridge the gap between them on issues such as a future customs union in the coming days, but any resolution next week would almost certainly come too late to prevent European elections going ahead.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said questions remained as to whether Labour was “serious about delivering Brexit”.

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Chuka Umunna speaks during a Change UK rally at Church House in Westminster (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Chuka Umunna, spokesman for pro-Remain party Change UK, accused his former party of “prevarication” over a referendum.

At the first in a series of Change UK rallies, he urged Labour supporters to “lend us your vote in these European elections”.

“The better we do, the more likely you are to see the Labour leadership adopt a People’s Vote and Remain position,” Mr Umunna told the rally in London.

Labour MP Jess Phillips warned the party would face a “drubbing” if it went into the European elections without a clear promise on a second referendum.

Ms Phillips told ITV News’ Acting Prime Minister podcast: “I think people who voted Remain and voted Labour will not vote Labour again.

“I do think we’ll get a drubbing in the European elections. All the main parties are going to get a drubbing in the European elections.”

And Corbyn-backing Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle warned that a failure to offer a referendum could scotch the party leader’s chances of getting to 10 Downing Street.

“Only way JC will be PM is to offer a confirmatory vote – we could be out of power for a generation and the left will be swept away in Labour,” tweeted the Brighton Kemptown MP.

“This is the fight for the left project and many are committing self harm.”

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