Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to call for a second Brexit referendum has energised supporters of a so-called People’s Vote — but senior Labour officials acknowledge that at present there is little chance of winning House of Commons backing for the initiative.
Some pro-Remain Labour MPs suggest that Mr Corbyn, a veteran Eurosceptic, is a halfhearted convert to the referendum cause ahead of a climactic Commons vote to be held by March 12. Others depict the Labour leader’s switch as a cynical move to assuage the concerns of the pro-EU wing of the party made in the full knowledge that most MPs do not back another referendum
“There aren’t enough votes for a second referendum in the Commons, it’s as simple as that,” said one member of the shadow cabinet. “It was just important for the Labour party for the membership to see the leadership stand up and support it.”
Mr Corbyn’s announcement on Monday night came only a week after eight Labour MPs left to form a new pro-EU grouping in the Commons and amid warnings that many more could break away, partly because of discontent with his line on Brexit.
It also followed a long power struggle within the party over whether Labour should back a softer Brexit than Theresa May’s deal, or instead campaign for no Brexit.
Some Europhiles are still suspicious of Mr Corbyn’s motivations. When eight Labour frontbenchers voted for the prime minister’s deal at the end of January they were not sacked. That prompted speculation that Mr Corbyn’s team would be happy for the government’s deal to get approval — without Labour taking any of the blame.
The Labour leadership still believes the mathematics of the House of Commons do not suggest that a second referendum can be approved, given the split in the party’s own ranks.
“We haven’t got the numbers to make this happen,” said another member of the shadow cabinet. “We’re depending on the Tories being prepared to stand with us and I can’t believe they will in any great numbers.”
Labour’s new position aligns it with the Scottish National party, the new Independent Group of pro-EU MPs and the Liberal Democrats, who all favour another vote. But even if all those groupings voted en masse for a second referendum, they would not be sure of winning, since Mrs May’s Conservatives and their allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party together have a Commons majority.
Instead, as many as 25 Labour MPs in pro-Brexit constituencies would rebel on the issue, according to Lucy Powell, a former member of the shadow cabinet.
For any amendment on a second referendum to succeed, therefore, any Labour defections would have to be outweighed by an even higher number of Conservative rebels. Only 10 Conservative MPs have declared their support for a second referendum, although some ministers could resign over the issue.
One pro-EU Conservative MP said it was difficult to estimate how much support a Labour amendment on a second referendum would command — because no one yet knew what it would say.
The MP referred to reports that the prime minister at one point faced large-scale ministerial resignations this week — before heading them off with promises to give parliament votes on a no-deal exit and on delaying Brexit if her own plan is rejected in the vote due by March 12.
“I think of the 30 ministers threatening to resign this week around half were pro- a second referendum,” the MP said. “As for the rest of the parliamentary party, that’s less clear . . . Labour won’t whip hard because of their own problems.”
Some Europhiles argue that momentum will grow behind the idea of a new vote as other options — such as alterations to Mrs May’s deal — close down. Some suggest that talks are under way over whether Labour could abstain in the decisive vote on the deal in return for a second referendum.
Labour has so far resisted backing an amendment by Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, two Labour backbenchers, that offers to support Mrs May’s deal in return for a public vote.
However some Labour MPs believe that the leadership could still swing behind that proposal in the coming days.