Jeremy Corbyn fears a Brexit ‘betrayal’ backlash if he backs a People’s Vote

Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to back a People's Vote.

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Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to back a People’s Vote.
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  • Sources close to Jeremy Corbyn tell Business Insider that the party risks a damaging backlash if it opts to back a second Brexit referendum.
  • The Labour party is under growing pressure at all levels of the party to back a so-called People’s Vote.
  • Corbyn’s advisers are split on the issue with some urging him to join other senior Labour figures like Deputy Leader Tom Watson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan in explicitly backing a new vote.
  • However, allies of Corbyn tell BI that private polling and focus groups conducted by the party suggest that doing so risks preventing Labour from winning the next general election.

LONDON – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is bracing itself for a major backlash from Labour voters if it backs a second Brexit referendum, senior aides to the Labour leader have told Business Insider.

The Labour leadership is under growing pressure from senior party figures and the membership to back a so-called People’s Vote if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is defeated in the House of Commons next week.

Corbyn is committed to the possibility of campaigning for another referendum if all other options – including the party’s first preference of an early general election – fail to win enough parliamentary support.

The Labour for a People’s Vote campaign told BI this week that they believe doing so would gift the party an additional 1.5 million votes and 70 seats at the next election.

However, some of those close to Corbyn are deeply sceptical about such predictions and fear that committing to a new vote would in reality trigger a wave of anger towards the Labour party and its leader, jeapordising its chances of winning the next general election.

“We would be badly hit,” one adviser to Corbyn told BI. “Right now the political narrative is directed towards ‘why aren’t we backing a Peoples Vote? We need these two million votes’ or whatever.

“But what happens if we back a People’s Vote and then we get resignations from the shadow cabinet?”

“What happens if you get loads of Labour MPs in the North of England saying this is a betrayal of the working classes who are being told to vote again until they give the right answer?

“That would totally change the game and we would be up against this betrayal narrative.”

Sources close to Corbyn told BI that the party had conducted private polling and focus groups in marginal seats which suggested there was no real appetite for a second vote.

“We’ve got polls showing that there are broadly 70% of the population who are bored by Brexit and just want politicians to get on with it. Theresa May has clearly got those same polls because she is saying the same thing,” the aide said.

We’ve got polls showing that there are broadly 70% of the population who are bored by Brexit and just want politicians to get on with it.

The party has been conducting polling and focus groups of voters in marginal seats in the Midlands about which way the party should go.

“We’ve done some private focus groups of soft Remain and soft Leave voters in the Midlands where there are a lot of marginal seats,” one aide told BI.

“And while Leave voters are all against a second referendum, Remain voters are also really sceptical as well. Those voters think it would be a cynical move, because people have already voted on this and they think ‘well why hasn’t this already been sorted out?”

Corbyn’s allies believe the issue risks preventing Corbyn from reaching Number 10.

“Here we are with our best ever chance of electing a socialist prime minister and we’re being dragged into something that will make it harder to achieve that,” one ally of Corbyn told BI.

Here we are with our best ever chance of electing a socialist prime minister and we’re being dragged into something that will make it harder to achieve that.

The Labour Leave campaign, which represents the party’s small number of MPs who are enthusiastic supporters of Brexit, held a briefing this week warning that the party risked being “decimated” if it backs a second referendum.

“If Labour goes down the route of supporting another referendum, we will cease to be able to call ourselves the Labour Party, because the working class in this country do not support continued membership of the EU,” Brendan Chilton, Labour councillor and supporter of Labour Leave, said on Thursday.

“We’ll become the party of capital. We’ll probably be decimated in our heartland seats. We have seats in the Midlands and the North with very slim majorities – they’d go.

“It would be a death sentence to the Labour Party outside of London and metropolitan areas.”

Labour could drop opposition to a revised May Brexit deal

Jeremy Corbyn

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Inside the People’s Vote campaign, senior figures are deeply sceptical that Labour will support their campaign.

This is despite senior Labour figures exerting pressure on Corbyn to back another referendum.

Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, has recently told leaders of other opposition parties that he expects Corbyn to eventually support a People’s Vote, multiple sources familiar with those conversations have told BI.

However, there is a belief among some figures close to Corbyn that with parliamentary stalemate on the Brexit question likely, the party may ultimately have little choice but to back another referendum.

“We are not going to commit to a second referendum overnight. That is not going to happen,” one aide said.

“But if there is a genuine gridlock then that might be the only way out. If there’s no election and no majority for anything else then that may be where we end up.”

Labour fears a new centrist party will emerge

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Labour fears a new centrist party will emerge
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REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Labour also fear that refusal to back a People’s Vote would be used by Labour MPs who are most opposed to his leadership as a trigger to split away from the party, with Chuka Umunna at the top of the list of those they expect to try to force the issue.

The campaign for a People’s Vote has been boosted in recent weeks by the resignations of two prominent Conservative ministers who resigned while backing calls for a new poll.

The resignations, with more rumoured to take place in the coming days, have led some to believe that a People’s Vote could eventually win a majority in parliament.

However, as things stand this looks difficult, with those around Corbyn believing that the majority of Labour MPs would ultimately reject a new vote.

“In the political class we pay too much attention to what people are saying on Twitter and there’s a sort of view in the media, particularly in the Guardian and the Observer, that all Labour MPs want a Peoples Vote and actually it’s only about 30 or 40 of them that do and the rest don’t,” one aide to Corbyn told BI.

“Most Labour MPs – and its not a left-right, pro-Corbyn or anti-Corbyn thing – in Leave constituencies, which is most of our MPs, say just get on with it. There has been no change of opinion.”

I could see a scenario where May comes back with a slightly softer deal and we say ‘well that is the best we can do’.

There are still some in Corbyn’s office who hope that the prime minister could opt for another snap general election if there is no way through Parliament for her controversial Withdrawal Agreement.

“There’s quite a lot of intelligence suggesting that the Tories are doing a lot of election preparation on the ground,” one Labour aide told BI. “It’s impossible to know for sure, but we are planning for a snap election.”

However, most Conservative MPs would likely vote against an early election, which betting markets suggest Labour would be favourites to win. This may mean that Labour ultimately has little choice but to abstain and allow some form of deal to go through Parliament, in order to avoid a chaotic no deal Brexit.

There is also a fear among Remain campaigners that Labour may ultimately decide to back a revised Brexit deal, such as one that committed to Labour’s aim of forming a new customs union with the EU. Corbyn’s allies accept this is possible.

“I could see a scenario where May comes back with a slightly softer deal and we say ‘well that is the best we can do. That nearly meets our objectives’ and then we will try to renegotiate in office,” one aide told BI.

“I can see a scenario where that happens.”