Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appears to have been reluctantly pushed into backing a second referendum on Brexit in a turnaround that could be one of the most significant twists yet in the saga of Britain leaving the European Union.
Prime Minister Theresa May remains determined to avoid a new referendum amid opinion polls suggesting that the public could vote to cancel Brexit, and there is no guarantee that Parliament will authorise a new public ballot.
Both major party leaders have repeatedly promised to deliver on the June 2016 referendum that backed Brexit by 51.8 per cent, and Brexit supporters have warned that a second referendum would be more bitterly divisive than any contest in modern UK politics.
Mr Corbyn has long promised to go along with the Brexit result, stubbornly resisting pressure from the majority of Labour Party members and many of his own MPs to back a second vote.
But he shifted ground yesterday after being warned that more Labour MPs could follow eight dissident MPs who defected from the party last week in anger at his lacklustre performance on Brexit and his failure to stamp out anti-Semitism within the party.
Mr Corbyn told a meeting of his MPs that Labour “cannot and will not accept” Mrs May’s strategy of “recklessly running down the clock” in a bid to “force MPs to choose between her botched deal and a disastrous no deal”.
While Labour formally opposed Brexit in the 2016 campaign, Mr Corbyn has long criticised the EU as a business-focused grouping that would obstruct some of his more Left-wing policies such as nationalising some industries, and since then his advisers have feared a backlash from Brexit supporters.
With an eye on those pro-Brexit voters Mr Corbyn told his MPs that he was not against the concept of Brexit but against the “damaging Tory Brexit” that Mrs May has negotiated with the EU and the danger of crashing out of the EU with no deal at all.
Instead Mr Corbyn said he would ask Parliament this week to support his own model for a new relationship with the EU, which includes unlikely conditions such as a permanent customs union with Brussels that has little chance of being accepted by either the EU or the British Parliament.
If the House of Commons rejects Labour’s model for Brexit, the party would then back some form of new public vote on the issue, Mr Corbyn said.
The Labour leader’s previous priority has been to try to use the government’s Brexit chaos to force a general election rather than a referendum that might stop Brexit.
Hywel Williams, the Brexit spokesman of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said Mr Corbyn had been “dragged kicking and screaming” towards a second referendum but that his conversion may be too late given that Brexit is due to take place on March 29.
“It almost seems as if Labour will only back a People’s Vote when it is too late,” Mr Williams said.
“This is yet another attempt to cover up the cracks created by its internal divisions, but more prevarication won’t do that.
Labour has already given up valuable time for navel gazing when it should and could have been working constructively across party lines to deliver the solution that so many want to see.”
Mr Corbyn’s about-face was welcomed by other minor parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party but he will still struggle to force a new referendum because the government controls the parliamentary agenda with barely a month left until Brexit is due.
A solid group of Labour MPs have also vowed to deliver Brexit and it will be tough to convince enough Conservative MPs to defect and back a Labour-driven motion to hold a referendum.
Supporters of a “People’s Vote” were still upbeat after Mr Corbyn’s shift, with Labour MP David Lammy saying a referendum would be much better than a no-deal Brexit.
“Even if MPs can agree some sort of deal, it would be wrong to force it on the British people when we now know so many of the promises made in 2016 have been broken, and any deal will be worse than the one we’ve already got inside the EU,” he said.
“Jeremy Corbyn is today taking the first step to reunite our party by showing he is listening to our voters and members on this, the biggest issue of our time.”