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Starmer says in, McDonnell says out, Watson in, Unite out, and shake it all about. Yes, it’s the Labour Party’s Brexit hokey-cokey. Again. It can, at times, be a bit hard to keep track of all the tricksy footwork going on, so here’s the latest state of play.

This time the topic is the second referendum.

First off, should there be one? Yes, if Labour conference demands it, Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn said at the weekend. Cue wild excitement from fans of a re-run. But, as ConservativeHome predicted, their celebrations were premature – the peculiar process of compositing, ie mashing together the many proposed motions, produced a fudge which committed Labour to possibly consider the option of a second referendum, in the circumstance of a deal being agreed by the EU but rejected by Parliament, and even then only in the circumstance that a General Election was not forthcoming. That was felt to be sufficiently ambiguous to be survivable.

That motion has since sparked another row. If the carefully obscure conditions for such a referendum were to be met, by accident or design, then what would it be on? A deal versus no deal? Brexit with a deal versus no Brexit? Starting talks again? A mixture of the above?

“Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option,” the Shadow Brexit Secretary announced today, which might come as something of a surprise to John McDonnell, who yesterday ruled out Remain as an option. Len McCluskey is no fan of a second referendum, and Unite has now hit back at Starmer – in the words of Steve Turner, McCluskey’s deputy, what Labour wants “is not a second referendum; despite what Keir may have said earlier, it’s a public vote on the terms of our departure”.

The interesting question is how much of this confusion is deliberate and how much of represents a genuine problem within Labour. Deliberate ambiguity has so far been quite convenient for Corbyn and co – allowing them to lead both Remainers and Leavers to believe they will fulfil their wishes. Offer enough to inspire faith, but not so much as to provoke suspicion, and scoop up the votes that lie between the two.

It’s certainly the case that hinting at a second referendum, without actually committing to one, is an intentional part of that strategy. Conservative attacks about division have been a bit misplaced at times as a result.

But it’s not quite so clear that Starmer’s decision to press to make a second referendum about staying in the EU has been agreed by all his colleagues, though. The words “Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option” weren’t in the official text of his speech, and no-one seems to know if they were cleared with the Leader’s office or not. At the same time, the briefing that he said it completely off the cuff seems like a smokescreen – he said essentially the same thing on television this morning, and when he uttered the phrase on stage he began it by looking down at his lectern, as though reading it out.

What seems more likely is that the Shadow Brexit Secretary has taken confidence from the strength of the pro-Remain lobby in his party, and has decided to chance his arm a bit. Unite’s clout is somewhat reduced now that the Labour Party’s mass membership generates a decent amount of money through subs, and the voice of the traditional working class Labour voters who backed Leave is being drowned out by a very different wave of Labour members and activists. At least one speaker was booed today for expressing what were once quite standard left-wing concerns about bosses exploiting cheap labour to undermine wages, for example.

If Starmer calculates he can use this issue and its supporters not only to make himself indispensable but to take on and beat McDonnell, McCluskey, et al, it is a bold move. Those he is challenging are veteran knife-fighters, who are far from powerless within the Labour Party even though times are changing. What’s more, the issue is becoming bound up with the wider, toxic atmosphere of suspicion between Labour factions.

It’s notable that Labour Leave’s response to the speech includes a cautionary note: “…the speech had more in common with a leadership stump speech than a policy announcement. Many people will wonder whether Sir Keir is trying to line himself up as the Remain replacement for Jeremy. Today’s speech shows that Keir is captive to New Labour interests in People’s Vote.”

Ouch – splitters beware.

100 comments for: Starmer chances his arm by challenging McDonnell and McCluskey over Brexit

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