After much prevarication, Jeremy Corbyn as head of the Labour Party yesterday publicly came out in favour of a second referendum. His decision is not so much the product of his political convictions and more of strategic calculations: Now that several Labour MPs have quit the party and founded the “Independent Group” (TIG), Corbyn is under immense pressure to unite his party again. There are grounds for doubting whether his support for a second referendum will have the desired liberating effect on the logjam.
Firstly, Corbyn must now face down those Labour MPs whose constituencies favoured exiting the EU in the original referendum. In 2016, there were no less than 72 Labour MPs in such constituencies. Although surveys suggest that many of the latter have since switched sides and favour ‘remaining’, there is still a significant number of Labour MPs (current estimates suggest 25) who will refuse to obey the party whip when it comes to a second referendum and will vote against it. At first glance, 25 may not seem like many, but given the fact that Labour has “only” 257 seats in the House of Commons, each vote is critical.
The second problem that Corbyn has to tackle is the formulation of the question to be asked in a possible second referendum. All that is certain to date is that the exclusion of a “No-Deal” Brexit and the idea of completely annulling the EU exit should both be options to vote on. According to current media reports, the Labour Party leadership currently has in mind offering a choice on the ballot paper between remaining in the EU and a “credible exit treaty”. It is completely unclear, however, what such a treaty should look like and above all who should be at the negotiating table. As long as Theresa May is Prime Minister (and at present there are no signs that this is likely to change in the short term), the exit treaty she negotiated is the operative one – and one Labour categorically rejects. And the EU is hardly likely to entertain “shadow negotiations” with Corbyn in order to come up with an alternative treaty that would then be tabled as a choice in the referendum.
Without doubt, the probability of a second referendum happening by hook or by crook has grown since Jeremy Corbyn changed course. However, we continue not to consider this scenario very probable. On the contrary, the fear of a second referendum could at long last persuade the Brexit hardliners among the Tories to support May’s ‘deal’.