Richard Corbett: What does the Brexit motion passed by Labour conference mean in practice?

Richard Corbett

Labour’s Brexit resolution, freshly adopted at conference 2018, is already subject to divergent interpretations. Let’s look carefully at what it says.

First, it states that Labour must vote against the Tory Brexit deal unless it meets Labour’s six tests, which now seems extremely unlikely. If the deal is rejected by the House of Commons, and if this government defeat doesn’t trigger a general election (obviously a fervent hope of all Labour members, but one that is far from certain given the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act), Labour is keeping all options open – including a popular vote.

But what are those options? One is actually ruled out by that same resolution: a ‘no deal’ Brexit. If both the deal and no deal have been rejected, what other options are there? Logically there are only two: a different deal or no Brexit.

A different deal seems implausible. With the Tories still in government, what scope would they have to secure something radically different in the time available? The government’s negotiating credibility would be in tatters. If it got a new deal, it would be marginally different or worse.

The only option left is to reconsider Brexit entirely. Legally, parliament could do that – politically, however, it would require a referendum. In such a situation, there would surely be enough Tory MPs willing to vote for such a referendum (certainly more than would do so for an election) rather than see a catastrophe for the country.

And it is entirely legitimate to offer people the chance to vote, given that Brexit is turning out to be very different from what was promised, and given that public opinion has not swung behind the result of the 2016 referendum but has shifted the other way.

Some say such a referendum would be a gamble. I’m not so sure. But the biggest gamble of all would be to proceed with a Brexit that poses huge risks our economic wellbeing and security.

Richard Corbett is a Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber and leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.

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