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Brexit defections force Labour leader Corbyn’s hand

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A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacting as Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks after making a statement to the House of Commons in London on February 26, 2019. – Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May faced mounting pressure Tuesday from her own government to delay Brexit after the main opposition Labour Party raised the prospect of a second referendum. (Photo by HO / PRU / AFP) /

Labour leader and lifelong eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn may be hoping his cautious support for a second Brexit referendum is never put to the test, experts said.

The shift appears to have been prompted by the defection of nine Labour MPs last week, many of whom cited Corbyn’s ambiguous Brexit stance as a reason.

Corbyn on Monday said he would put forward or support a parliamentary vote on holding a second referendum if the party’s own plan for Brexit is rejected.

“For him personally, it’s something of a U-turn,” said Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham.

Corbyn does not oppose Brexit and his support for staying in the European Union ahead of the 2016 referendum was lukewarm at best.

Voters in the referendum chose, by 52 to 48 percent, to quit the European Union. That will happen on March 29 unless Britain delays or reverses the decision.

At the party conference last year, Corbyn reportedly resisted attempts to push for a second referendum with the option of staying in the EU.

“I don’t think he anticipated having to embrace a referendum anytime soon… because he thought a deal would be about to be made,” Fielding said.

“He’s done his best to avoid it, he’s doing it because he has to.”

The MPs’ defections appear to have forced the leader’s hand, Oliver Patel, manager of the UCL European Institute, told AFP.

“Is it a coincidence that Monday, the week after nine Labour MPs defected from the Labour Party, eight of whom wanted a second referendum… the Labour party made a decisive shift towards a second referendum?”

Corbyn’s poll numbers dwindling
Corbyn is also under pressure from MPs in the party’s traditional heartlands, which voted for Brexit, to honour the party’s election manifesto and uphold the result of the 2016 vote.

“If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t give a free vote on this, then what will happen is he will destroy the Labour Party,” MP John Mann warned on Sky News.

“This is the metropolitan Labour Party, it’s got nothing to do with Labour voters in my area.”

Although Corbyn faces no immediate threat to his leadership, his poll numbers have dwindled in recent weeks as the Brexit endgame draws near. He faces a tough task uniting the different strands of his party.

“Jeremy Corbyn — potential prime minister — you can wave goodbye to that at the moment,” said Fielding, adding that the departure of centrist MPs “has put the kybosh” on those immediate ambitions.

Keeping together pro and anti-Brexit wings of his party depends on Corbyn’s “skills to finesse” his message, convincing Brexit supporters that Labour tried its best to respect the referendum result.

Corbyn could be banking on parliamentary mathematics to help him out by voting against the plans.

“They will know the number of Labour MPs who will vote against that referendum will more than cancel out any Tory MPs who might vote for a second referendum,” said Fielding.

The question on the ballot paper is also the source of some debate, with Corbyn yet to join his pro-Remain colleagues in stating that staying in the European Union would be an option.

All of which means that a second referendum is still some way from becoming reality.

“In theory we’re closer, in practice we’re no closer to it,” said Fielding.


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