Labour's Brexit Splits Risk Undermining Party Ahead of Election

Stuart Biggs and Alex Morales

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U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is struggling to keep his party together as senior members demand an unambiguous commitment to staying in the European Union before a general election expected in the fall.

Corbyn said his party is pledging to hold a second referendum on Brexit if it’s elected to government, pitting ‘Remain’ against a “credible” deal he negotiates with the EU -- but he wouldn’t say which side he’d campaign for.

His attempt at forging unity began to unravel within hours, as Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who survived an attempt to oust him on Saturday, said backing ‘Remain’ offers a clear route to power.

“We are a Remain party,” Watson said in a lunchtime speech on the sidelines of Labour’s annual conference on Sunday. “We are a European Party. We are an internationalist party. That is who we are. Not perfect, not pure. But overwhelmingly committed to Britain remaining in Europe and reforming Europe.”

The argument threatens to undermine efforts to use Labour’s gathering in Brighton to build a platform to challenge Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in a national vote expected later this year. Corbyn said the majority of Labour members and voters want to stay in the EU but a “significant minority” want to leave, and he is aiming to strike a balance.

Decision Delay

Corbyn wants the party to promise that if it wins a general election it will negotiate a swift Brexit deal with the EU and there will be a referendum within six months. Remain will be the other option in the vote, he said. A decision on which side Labour will take in that campaign will be postponed until a special conference of members has discussed the options.

“What I’ve tried to do all along is recognize the result of the referendum and respect it,” Corbyn told BBC TV, repeatedly refusing to say which side his party would support. He didn’t rule out campaigning for the deal his government agrees with the EU.

“Absolutely depends what the deal is,” he said. “Let’s see what we get and we’ll put that final decision to the British people and make that decision at that time.”

The Party’s ruling National Executive Council issued a statement later on Sunday backing Corbyn’s stance.

“A Labour government will get Brexit sorted one way or another within six months of coming to power, allowing us to concentrate on all the issues that matter to people most,” it said. “It is right that the party shall only decide how to campaign in such a referendum, through a one-day special conference, following the election of a Labour government.”

Staying On

The 70-year-old veteran socialist also said he’s committed to serving a full five-year term as prime minister if he wins the election, amid speculation he is considering stepping down.

It wasn’t just Watson, who has previously clashed with the party leadership on Brexit, questioning Corbyn’s stance on Sunday. On Sky News, former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said “there may come a point where we have to make more of a choice.”

And Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry pulled no punches in a speech to delegates on the margins of the conference.

“If you believe in internationalism and if you believe in socialism, why on earth would you back Brexit?” she said. Whatever the terms of a Brexit deal and regardless of whether it was negotiated by Labour or the Conservatives, “we must not just campaign to remain, we must lead the campaign to remain,” she said.

At the same event, fellow shadow cabinet member Nia Griffith said: “I will be campaigning to remain in all circumstances.”

‘Pointless’

Johnson’s Conservatives rejected Corbyn’s position, accusing him of “dither and pointless delay” in an emailed statement.

Michael Gove, the minister responsible for no-deal Brexit planning, said a second referendum would lead to a bitter rift between the public and Parliament and that he was “profoundly concerned” at the prospect.

“A second referendum would trigger deep popular anger and result in a tumultuous rejection of Parliament’s attempt to annul the first vote,” Gove wrote in the Sunday Times. He also warned that the Conservative Party will suffer at the polls if it fails to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31. “We are on the razor’s edge of peril,” he wrote.

(Updates with NEC starting in 9th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Jessica Shankleman.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stuart Biggs in Brighton at sbiggs3@bloomberg.net;Alex Morales in Brighton at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Thomas Penny, James Amott

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