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Corbyn rejects call by Tom Watson for Labour to fully back remain

Labour leader reiterates it is his party’s policy to get a deal and then present it to voters

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour should not prioritise referendum over election – video

Jeremy Corbyn has flatly rejected a proposal by his deputy, Tom Watson, for Labour to become an unequivocally pro-remain party.

Watson gave a provocative speech in London on Wednesday, calling for Labour to back a referendum to reverse Brexit before any general election is held. But Corbyn later reiterated Labour’s stance, agreed with key trade union leaders on Tuesday, which is to negotiate a “credible” leave option and then present it to voters in a referendum.

Asked about Watson’s speech, Corbyn, in Walsall visiting a college to encourage students to register to vote, said: “It’s Tom’s view – – I don’t accept it, I don’t agree with it.”

Tom Watson says PM is 'disgraceful' and calls for referendum before election - video

Corbyn has previously said that Labour is prioritising a general election and would make the commitment to a referendum with leave and remain options in its manifesto. In a separate interview, he said Labour would continue to try to represent both sides of the Brexit divide.

“Ever since 2016, I’ve sought to bring people together. People voted remain because they wanted to remain in the EU and felt it was their best option. Many voted leave because they were angry at the way their communities had been left behind, denied investment, denied good quality jobs, denied any real hope for the future,” he said.

“I want to lead a Labour government that will bring people together, and a relationship with Europe, either in the EU or an effective trading relationship with Europe, in which we have a dynamic relationship on regulations and rights so we don’t become a Donald Trump island, on the edge of Europe, undermining the social advances that have been made.”

Corbyn rejects call by Tom Watson for Labour to fully back remain
Jeremy Corbyn on a visit to Walsall college of further education on Wednesday. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Labour’s Brexit policy has shifted significantly over the past 12 months, in a series of incremental steps from last year’s annual conference, when the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, brokered a carefully worded composite motion, putting forward a referendum as one option.

Some shadow cabinet ministers, including Emily Thornberry, have already made clear they would support remain in any referendum, whatever deal a Labour government managed to negotiate.

Starmer, who addressed the TUC congress in Brighton on Wednesday, played down Labour’s divisions, saying the party was united around a second referendum. “At the moment there is a good discussion going on but we are very united having that discussion; we don’t want to shut down discussion in our party,” he said.

Tom Watson is wrong. We need an election first – and then a second referendum | Tom Kibasi

In his speech Watson argued it was not too late for Labour to win back disaffected remain voters, if the party was to commit clearly to campaigning to stay in the EU.

“My experience on the doorstep tells me most of those who’ve deserted us over our Brexit policy did so with deep regret and would greatly prefer to come back; they just want us to take an unequivocal position that, whatever happens, we’ll fight to remain, and to sound like we mean it,” he said. “If we did it, we could win, whereas if we don’t, I fear we won’t.”

Labour members are overwhelmingly anti-Brexit and have put pressure on the leadership to move towards a more avowedly remain position. But some of its MPs, including Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint, are working with colleagues from other parties to encourage the prime minister to strike a Brexit deal, and bring it back to parliament for approval.

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