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Labour calls for vote that could trigger Brexit referendum rerun

Jan 22 2019 09:37
Thomas Penny, Bloomberg
A painting depicting a workman chipping away at a

A painting depicting a workman chipping away at a star on the EU flag by artist Banksy is seen on January 03, 2019 in Dover, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

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The UK’s main opposition party is backing a plan that would open the door to a second European Union referendum, bringing the prospect of stopping Brexit a step closer.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proposed a series of votes in Parliament on options for how the UK can avoid an economically damaging no-deal Brexit. One of these choices is a new national referendum.

It is the first time the Labour leader has put his name to a proposal in Parliament preparing a path for a new public vote. Corbyn’s backing for the move is highly significant: As leader of the official opposition, he is almost certain to get a chance to put his plan to a vote in the House of Commons on January 29.

Corbyn has so far been equivocal about his support for a second referendum. If he does throw his weight behind another ballot – which is still to be confirmed – it could be decisive.

About 10 Conservative members of Parliament are already campaigning for another plebiscite.

Two years since the first referendum, the UK has yet to negotiate an exit accord that can win the backing of Parliament.

May’s deal was rejected by lawmakers last week by a historic margin and she’s now trying to revise the agreement with the EU to win over opponents at home.

"Our amendment will allow MPs to vote on options to end this Brexit deadlock and prevent the chaos of a No Deal," Corbyn said in an emailed statement. "It’s time for Labour’s alternative plan to take center stage, while keeping all options on the table, including the option of a public vote."

The formula of "keeping all options on the table” echoes a compromise deal agreed by the party last year that has enabled Corbyn, a lifelong Euroskeptic, to hold off demands from rank-and-file members and lawmakers to support a second plebiscite. The pound was unchanged.

"This is a huge step forward and shows the Labour leadership’s commitment to stop a disastrous no deal exit," said Mike Buckley, director of Labour for a People’s Vote.

"We still need clarity on Labour’s position in a public vote and whether, as members want, we would campaign robustly for our continued membership of the EU."

The People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum last week published results of a snap YouGov poll that showed support for remaining in the EU surging to a post-2016 record.

The survey of more than 1 000 people showed Remain holding a 12 percentage-point margin – compared with the 4-point gap in the 2016 referendum.

On the EU side, a second referendum would be welcomed by many, and it would almost certainly mean an extension to exit day, which is currently scheduled for March 29. The pound was unchanged.

Threat to democracy

Prime Minister Theresa May rejected calls for a second referendum from MPs on all sides during an appearance in the House of Commons on Monday.

Warning it would "damage social cohesion by undermining faith in democracy," she said it would break the trust of the 17.4 million voters who backed leaving the EU.

May said she doesn’t believe there’s a majority for a referendum in the House of Commons and told supporters they will have to "think again" when it is defeated.

The Labour move might just play into May’s hands. Pro-Brexit hardliners in her party could decide that the deal she negotiated – though they hate it – is a better option than risking a re-run of the referendum that could reverse the decision of 2016.

Some in Labour’s ranks are also uncomfortable with the prospect of asking voters again.

The Labour amendment calls for lawmakers to be given a vote on options including the opposition party’s alternative plan for a permanent customs union with the EU and a strong relationship to the bloc’s single market.

If that is not accepted then there should be a referendum on any deal that is agreed by the House of Commons, it says.

The announcement by the opposition party seizes on a wider move by Parliament to take control of the Brexit process to avoid an economically damaging no-deal split.

May refused to rule out delaying Britain’s departure from the EU on Monday as she came under pressure from a cross-party group of politicians who have proposed a new law that could force her to ask the EU to extend the Brexit deadline.

Under the plan, if no deal is struck by February 26, Parliament would be able to direct the next steps, including forcing May to call for an extension to the negotiations beyond Britain’s planned exit date of March 29.

On Monday, the prime minister hinted she’s already contemplating an extension. During a question session in the House of Commons, she was repeatedly asked if she would rule out a delay to the UK’s withdrawal – but stopped short of doing so.

Her comments represent another indication that the UK’s troubled divorce from the EU will need more time. With just over nine weeks until Britain is due to end its EU membership, there is still no sign of a plan that can pass through Parliament.

If no agreement can be ratified before March 29, the UK will lurch out of the EU with no deal, risking dire economic consequences, including a recession, and potentially a 25% fall in the value of the pound, according to British authorities.

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