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Labour fallout as Keir Starmer tells conference Remain could be a second referendum option

Council leader Georgia Gould says MP's speech was 'brilliant' as union leaders complain of ad-libbed ambush

27 September, 2018 — By Richard Osley in Liverpool

HOLBORN and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer was in the heat of a backstage battle this week after delivering a partially adlibbed conference speech in which he said remaining in the European Union had not been ruled out of the options Labour could push for if there is a second Brexit referendum.

His comment broke free from the cosy convention which commonly sees big-name political figures distribute speeches to lobby journalists before they have taken to the stage. It led to one of the loudest and longest applauses in the conference hall.

But while it delighted members and delegates who dream of halting Britain’s divorce from Europe, or at least preventing an exit from the union without a deal, there were claims that Mr Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, had broken an agreement ham­mered out over the weekend.

While it had been accepted that Labour would press for a second referendum – the so-called people’s vote – if Theresa May refused to call a general election in the wake of the country’s unproductive negotiations with the EU, Mr Starmer was said to “have gone too far” with the rallying cry: “And nobody is ruling out Remain.”

It cut across comments by shadow chancellor John McDonnell earlier in the week when he suggested a second referendum would be between different exit deals and not with a box to tick for remaining in the EU. When asked for their opinion, some Corbyn loyalists from north London said privately that, although they too wanted to remain in Europe, Mr Starmer had “broken the trust” and “ambushed Jeremy”; some comments were even fruitier.

Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to conference

Some union leaders, meanwhile, did not hide their anger. Steve Turner, general secretary of Unite, one of the biggest Labour-supporting unions, insisted that any new vote would only be “a vote on the terms of our departure”.

Paul Embery, from the Fire Brigades Union, said: “With every speech we are confirming our status as a middle-class, London-centric, uber-liberal, youth-obsessed party. “As I heard someone say last night, we are handing a P45 notice to every Labour MP in the north and the Midlands.”

In a week where the party was hard to pin down on a definitive position on Brexit – some commentators believe Labour is being deliberately obscure to avoid alienating either Remainers or Leavers – other members of Jeremy Corbyn’s top team stopped short of pledging that the option to remain would be on another referendum paper.

Instead, there were attempts to switch conversations and interviews to a demand for another general election on the basis that Ms May was gridlocked in her attempts to negotiate Britain’s way out of the EU.

Mr Starmer, who became MP in Holborn and St Pancras three years ago but is now tipped as a future leader of the party, said: “It is right for Parliament to have the first say but if we need to break the impasse, Labour campaigning for a public vote must be an option – and nobody is ruling out ‘remain’ as an option.”

He has rejected suggestions that his delivery was a grand departure from a position agreed with delegates during a marathon meeting on Sunday evening.

While many members wanted more airtime for policies on education – the ending of academy schools – and utilities, such as bringing the water supply back into public ownership, Brexit dominated the conference here in Liverpool. Throughout the week, campaigners waved European flags at anybody entering the conference centre.

Some members wore t-shirts that read: “Love Corbyn, hate Brexit.” Campaigners suggested at several fringe meetings that Labour needed to fight back against hard Brexiteers, with six months to go until the scheduled break from Europe, regardless of the consequences at any future election.

During his own speech, closing the conference yesterday (Wednesday), Mr Corbyn said an acceptable Brexit deal could be possible, but Ms May – who this week publicly rejected the idea of going to the polls – was unlikely to be able to reach the right negotiation. “Labour respects the decision of the British people in the referendum. But no one can respect the conduct of the government since that vote took place,” he said, adding that “all options are on the table” if Ms May did not call an election.

Having watched Mr Starmer’s performance live in the hall, Camden Council leader Georgia Gould, who had previously diverged from national party policy by publicly supporting a second referendum, when pushed by local Liberal Democrats, welcomed the speech “Keir made a brilliant speech and got a standing ovation for our position on Brexit. We’ve made it really clear we are not going to let the Tories drag us into a hard Brexit,” she said. “I think there is huge unity in the hall on this issue.”

The debate on Brexit for Camden’s politicians could next be played out in the council chamber with talks behind the scenes continuing over whether a people’s vote motion will be discussed. Before the conference, some Labour members had been wary that such a move might undermine Mr Corbyn and the party’s national approach to Brexit.

Asked if there was a danger that London members of the party looked like they were pushing their views onto Labour supporters in the Midlands and the North who wanted to leave the EU, Cllr Gould said: “Obviously, I have an obligation to stand up for my constituents and what they want, and you know there is huge Remain support in London. We are a diverse community, we have so many EU citizens who are neighbours, our friends, our colleagues and I need to stand up for them.”

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