Jeremy Corbyn is still on the fence, but it seems as though he is set to put a foot down on the side of a Final Say referendum on membership of the European Union.
Naturally, supporters of a second referendum, including The Independent, would rather a more emphatic statement of support for the principle of referring the European question back to the people.
But we should not take too seriously the Labour leader’s protestation that the party’s policy is unchanged – “I have already made the case … in line with our conference policy”. He has his own coalition to manage, as we saw with the pre-emptive letter from 26 Labour MPs opposed to the policy shift.
They are right to be concerned, because the policy has shifted. Labour is now in favour of a public vote on any deal to take the UK out of the EU. Given that parliament is almost certain to prevent a new prime minister taking the UK out of the EU without a deal, this means that the official opposition favours a public vote on any likely Brexit.
Deep textual analysis might suggest a “public vote” could include a general election, but what is more significant is that Mr Corbyn is now open to the possibility of a vote without having to go through the hoops of trying to force a general election first.
Equally significant is that Labour policy now contains some clarity about what form a referendum should take: “A ballot paper would need to contain real choices for both Leave and Remain voters.” It is not explicit, but it is unavoidable, that “Remain” would have to be an option on the ballot paper. It is also strongly implied that a no-deal Brexit would have to be an option, as that is what many Leave voters regard as a “real” choice.
The policy is silent on the possibility of a three-option “preferendum”, with a Brexit deal being the third choice, which is probably sensible at this stage, and it goes on to say: “This will of course depend on parliament.” This is a mere statement of fact – the kind of fact that seems to have long ceased to trouble most of the candidates for the Conservative leadership. It raises the awkward question of whether parliament would be prepared to put a no-deal option on the ballot paper, but at least Labour policy seems to be based in the reality of a hung parliament.
The next stage of Labour’s slow progress towards a democratic, reality-based position on Brexit is to consult members, supporters and trade unionists on developing the policy. In this, The Independent suggests that the party needs to take seriously the case made by the 26 Labour MPs against a referendum. Their strongest argument is that the party pledged to “respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum and negotiate Brexit”.
Mr Corbyn needs to respond to that by saying, loud and clear, that the Brexit terms negotiated by the prime minister were rejected – regardless of the Labour position – by a significant number of Brexiteers themselves. They stopped the UK leaving the EU because they were not prepared to vote for the only possible way it could have been done.
The only way to break the deadlock of the Brexiteers’ own making is to go back to the people and give them the Final Say.