LONDON – The Brexit spokesman of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party on Tuesday raised the possibility of staying in the European Union, more than two years after Britons voted to leave.
Keir Starmer told the left-wing party’s conference that another vote on Britain’s relationship with the European Union should still be an option, in an attempt to bridge Labour’s divisions on Brexit.
Many young, metropolitan, newer party members vociferously oppose leaving the EU, but older, working-class voters from the party’s traditional heartlands are in favor.
“It’s right that Parliament has the first say” on any Brexit deal the government strikes with Brussels, Starmer told the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, England.
“But if we need to break an impasse, our options must include campaigning for a public vote — and nobody is ruling out Remain as an option,” he said in an unscripted addition — to huge cheers and a standing ovation.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time skeptic of the EU, has so far tried to maintain ambiguity on the subject while the government ties itself in knots during the Brexit process.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who has ruled out a second referendum, says leaving without a deal is the only alternative to her plan that would keep Britain close to Brussels on trade — a blueprint that has been rebuffed by EU leaders.
Starmer said that if May struck a deal that did not match Labour’s expectations — something he said “seems increasingly likely” — then it would vote against the deal in Parliament.
If that happened, May would need the backing of almost all her Conservative MPs to approve the deal, which seems unlikely given the centre-right party’s own ideological splits.
It would also radically increase the risk that Britain leaves the EU in March without any agreement at all, throwing the whole process, and the government, into chaos.
Starmer said Labour wanted a general election to break a Brexit deadlock in Parliament.
However, if an election was not possible, a second referendum should be on the table.
The terms on which this could be held have been the source of confusion within Labour, reflecting its divisions over the issue.
Later Tuesday, the conference will formally vote on a motion on “all options remaining on the table,” including the possibility of a second referendum.
The motion’s wording was agreed on Monday after five hours of intense talks.
But it disappointed many party members, who had hoped for a solid commitment to a second vote on a final Brexit deal, including the option to remain in the EU.
After Starmer’s speech, key figures and delegates said it had struck a good balance.
Jon Lansman, who founded the pro-Corbyn Momentum grassroots movement that is gaining increasing sway within Labour, said: “The compromise we have got today is a good way of uniting the party. I think it does keep all the options on the table.
“We want people to be up to decide the future of the country. I’d rather do it in a general election.
“Leaving the EU and in particular leaving without a deal would be a disaster.”
Labour MP David Lammy said: “This has been a long fight over many months, many years and I think we are getting somewhere.”
Starmer’s speech “successfully achieved bringing the Labour family together,” he added.
Many young party members have been going about the conference carrying bags reading “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit.”
“I was really pleased to hear that Remain is still an option,” said Jane Harris, 41, from Corbyn’s Islington constituency in north London.
“A referendum is the only sensible option.”
Patricia Dale, 67, a Labour local councillor in Rochdale, northwest England, said: “There is no longer a division.
“The people who voted Leave would get a chance to vote Leave again. To me, it is more democracy to ask people to confirm or change their mind.”