Jeremy Corbyn is facing war with his closest ally tonight after John McDonnell insisted a second referendum is now the ‘only option’ following Labour’s EU elections disaster.
The leader is under massive pressure to shift position to full-heartedly back another national vote that could potentially see Brexit cancelled.
The row escalated dramatically this evening after Mr McDonnell stepped up his backing for a referendum.
Mr Corbyn has been trying to tread a fine between keeping another public vote on the table to appease Remainer activists, and avoiding aggravating the party’s Brexit-supporting northern heartlands.
But Mr McDonnell admitted that a general election – the other option being pursued by Labour – was highly unlikely to happen because ‘Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’.
‘Our only option now is go back to the people in a referendum and that is the position we’re in now,’ the shadow chancellor told Sky News.
The comments came after Diane Abbott demanded a ‘clearer’ position after Labour slumped to third place in England and Wales and fifth in Scotland.
Earlier, Mr Corbyn was still trying to dodge being pinned down, saying only that he thought there should be a ‘public vote’.
In a tense interview with the BBC, he said: ‘I support that any final deal has to be put to a public vote. What this party does is supports an agreement with the EU to prevent crashing out, supports putting that proposal when agreed to a public vote.’
Earlier in a statement, the Labour leader said: ‘With the Conservatives disintegrating and unable to govern, and Parliament deadlocked, this issue will have to go back to the people, whether through a general election or a public vote.’
He added: ‘Over the coming days, we will have conversations across our party and movement, and reflect on these results on both sides of the Brexit divide.’
Mr Corbyn (pictured leaving home this morning) himself has said ‘this issue will have to go back to the people’ as the shadow Cabinet turned on him
Labour infighting escalated dramatically tonoght after John McDonnell stepped up his backing for a second Brexit referendum
Disappointing result: A Labour supporter looks gloomy last night at the count for North West England in Manchester: The party dropped to third place behind the Lib Dems in the European elections and Jeremy Corbyn’s critics are blaming his lack of clear support for a second referendum
Unhappy-looking Labour party observers during the Yorkshire and Humber European election count at Leeds Town Hall
Labour is well behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the Lib Dems. Even in Mr Corbyn’s Islington back yard Labour only managed to come second.
It is being consumed by an acrimonious split between MPs in Remain-supporting areas and those in Leave seats who fear a backlash at the next general election.
After the result Mr McDonnell said Labour could unite the party and country by ‘taking (the) issue back to people in a public vote’ and Ms Abbott said that the party had been damaged by not having a ‘clearer line’ on the issue.
Foreign secretary Emily Thornberry was among those to blast the party’s ‘unclear’ strategy and demand a second referendum after Labour’s thrashing.
After Labour big beasts demanded a fresh Brexit poll, Jeremy Corbyn last night made the strongest indication yet that he could look to back a second referendum
Ms Thornberry warned were ‘getting a good kicking’ as the unashamedly pro-Remain Lib Dems ate into the Labour vote.
Deputy leader Tom Watson demanded an ‘urgent’ change of direction, warning that it will soon be too late to stop the UK from crashing out of the EU without a deal.
And shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that the public should be offered a choice between ‘a credible leave option and remain’.
But shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon – a key Corbyn lieutenant – insisted Labour had the right approach in seeking to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers despite its failures.
It came after Mr Corbyn himself has said ‘this issue will have to go back to the people’ as the shadow Cabinet turned on him – although he again dodged stating whether there should be a general election or a single-issue vote.
Mr McDonnell initially said: ‘Can’t hide from hit we took last night.
‘Bringing people together when there’s such a divide was never going to be easy.
‘Now we face prospect of Brexiteer extremist as Tory leader & threat of no deal, we must unite our party & country by taking issue back to people in a public vote.’
However after his commentds were picked up on social media he added a caveat: ‘So people are absolutely clear what I am saying.
‘Of course I want a general election. But I realise how difficult this is to secure.
‘I will do anything I can to block no deal Brexit. So yes if, as likely GE (general election) not possible, then I support going back to the people in another referendum.’
This latter comment is in line with the party’s policy, which is to only back a second referendum if it cannot achieve a general election.
Ms Abbott added: ‘We have to take the time to analyse the EU vote.
‘But, when we come in third after the Brexit party, that is a clue something is wrong with our strategy.
‘We need to listen to our members and take a clearer line on a public vote.’
But Mr Burgon said: ‘I think the message of trying to bring people together who voted Remain and Leave is the right message.
‘It was never going to work in this kind of low-turnout EU election where the people most interested in this important issue of Brexit, whether it is to Remain or Leave, came out to vote. A general election would be very different.’
And party chairman Ian Lavery, who has spoken against a second referendum, tweeted: ‘Those who voted Leave are rightly frustrated that we haven’t left & those who voted Remain are rightly furious at the Tories disastrous handling of Brexit.
‘Don’t define people by how they voted in 2016 – the real divide is between the have & have nots.’
Savaging the campaign, Mrs Thornberry told BBC News: ‘I think we are going to get a kicking. I feel really sorry for all our MEPs who are going to lose their seats, all the candidates who work so hard and all our activists who, frankly, have not done well and it’s not their fault.
‘I think that the point is that we went into an election where the most important issue was ‘what was our view on leaving the European Union’ and we were not clear about it.
‘We were not clear on the one single thing that people wanted to hear and that wasn’t their fault.
‘We sent people out to campaign on that and, unfortunately, we just weren’t clear enough.’
She added: ‘I fear we will have no deal and we must be clear it will be a disaster for the country so we must have a second referendum.’
Senior backbencher David Lammy accused Mr Corbyn of trying to ‘ride two horses’.
‘Labour should get its act together. We tried to ride two horses. We fell flat on our faces, basically, with our face pressed against the pavement,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘That’s what happened. It is now clear that the electorate is now polarised, still, along leave and Remain.
‘There is a surge of support for those who want no deal, and there is an absolute surge for those who want a confirmatory vote.
‘And in this election, we have resuscitated the Liberal Democrats, we have handed votes to the Greens,
‘And very, very worryingly, we have facilitated Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party because in the system of elections in the European elections, the largest parties always do well unless your policy is not clear.’
In a fresh hint that he was indeed considering backing a fresh Brexit poll, Mr Corbyn said the EU elections had become ‘a proxy second referendum’.
He added: ‘With the Conservatives disintegrating and unable to govern, and Parliament deadlocked, this issue will have to go back to the people, whether through a general election or a public vote.
‘Labour will bring our divided country together so we can end austerity and tackle inequality.
‘Over the coming days, we will have conversations across our party and movement, and reflect on these results on both sides of the Brexit divide.
‘We will not let the continuing chaos in the Conservative Party push our country into a No Deal exit from the EU. Parliament can and will prevent such a damaging outcome for jobs and industry in the UK .
On a disastrous night for the party, Labour’s vote share tumbled to third overall behind the Lib Dems.
Critics said the voters’ damning verdict came about because Mr Corbyn had tried and failed to attract the support of both Leave and Remain voters.
In the event, voters on both sides of the Brexit divide deserted his party.
In the Leave-supporting North East region, the Brexit Party polled twice as many votes as Labour. Mr Corbyn’s party fell to fourth in strongholds such as Cardiff and Sheffield.
In Remain-supporting London, Labour lost control of the north London borough of Islington, where Mr Corbyn – who turned 70 yesterday – has his Commons seat, to the Lib Dems.
The full London results showed the Lib Dems taking 27 per cent of the vote, above Labour on 24 per cent. Change UK, which broke away from Labour earlier this year, got just 5 per cent.
It means that of the eight seats up for grabs in London, the Lib Dems took three and Labour two.
Labour also had its worst ever result in Wales, slumping to third behind the Brexit Party and the pro-independence Plaid Cymru.
A Remain-supporting Labour source said there will now be a fresh move by MPs against Mr Corbyn. The source said the focus will be on changing Labour policy to support a second referendum, and then challenging Mr Corbyn’s leadership if he refuses.
Anti-Brexit Labour peer Lord Adonis tweeted: ‘Very clear that if Labour had been the party of Remain in this election, we would have won.’
Mary Creagh MP said: ‘If we’d said referendum, remain and reform, Labour would’ve beaten [Brexit Party leader Nigel] Farage. A tragedy for our country and our party.’
Colleague Jess Phillips tweeted: ‘If we had been clearer we’d have beaten Farage. The end.’
Labour MEP candidate John Howarth apologised to party members in the south-east for the party’s expected poor showing.
‘Had Labour’s high command set out to lose an election they could not have gone about it in a more convincing way,’ he wrote.
Blair’s old spin doctor votes Lib Dem for the first time in his life
Alastair Campbell (right) and former PM Tony Blair (left)
Alastair Campbell said he had not voted Labour for the first time in his life – in disgust at the party’s stance on Europe.
Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, pictured, tweeted: ‘I voted Lib Dem, as did Fiona Miller [his partner]. For both of us the first time ever we did not vote Labour.
I’m not a Lib Dem. I’m Labour and I hope that in voting as I did I will help the Labour Party see sense and do right thing for the country: People’s Vote.’
He added: ‘If Islington has gone Lib Dem then maybe even Jeremy Corbyn might realise the strategy pursued by the posh boy revolutionaries is failing badly and putting his and Labour’s future at risk.’
Mr Campbell was Mr Blair’s chief spokesman from 1994 to 2003. He is now a key figure in the People’s Vote campaign, demanding a second referendum.
He said before the poll that he believed the country ‘made a terrible choice’ and had realised ‘just how difficult Brexit is’.
Mr Campbell also insisted that Mr Corbyn’s approach of ‘facing both ways’ on Brexit had failed.
‘Labour’s NEC [National Executive Committee] had plenty of warning … of the likely consequences of adopting an equivocal policy on Brexit not based on seeking to remain in the EU.’
In the North-East of England – traditionally Labour’s hardiest stronghold in the country – the Brexit Party collected twice as many votes as Labour.
Labour slumped to just 19 per cent of the vote, meaning Mr Farage’s party took two of the three available seats for the region.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, Labour lost control of cities including Leeds and Sheffield. Former Labour MP Jamie Reed tweeted: ‘Jeremy Corbyn destroying Labour in Yorkshire tonight. Yorkshire. That’s Yorkshire. Well done Jez.’
Labour’s civil war erupted into the open yesterday as hard-Left union boss Len McCluskey accused the party’s deputy leader Tom Watson of using Brexit as a ruse to topple Mr Corbyn and called him a ‘poor imitation of Machiavelli’.
Mr Watson said that Labour must come out strongly in favour of a second referendum, or face electoral oblivion.
Writing in The Observer, he said: ‘For our party’s sake, but most of all for Britain’s sake, Labour needs to find some backbone on Brexit, find our voice – and do it fast.’
Mr Watson described the party’s stance on a second referendum as ‘a deliberate, self-defeating attempt to triangulate between different groups’.
Mr McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, responded: ‘Tom Watson’s already out, surprise surprise, trying to take on the role of Prince Machiavelli, but I’ve got news for Tom,’ he said. ‘Machiavelli was effective. He’s a poor imitation of that.
If he’s trying to turn Labour members against Corbyn and in his favour, then he’s going to lose disastrously.’
He added: ‘If you look at the Remainers, some of the leading lights, Blair, Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Tom Baldwin… these are individuals who have actually indicated they’d sooner have a Tory government than a Corbyn government, so take no notice of these phoneys, and stick with Corbyn.’
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insisted it had been right to ‘tread a really difficult road’ of trying to bring Leave and Remain supporters together.
Former Labour MP and longtime Eurosceptic George Galloway tweeted a scathing attack on his old party
He said: ‘Labour as we knew it is dead.
‘A coalition of Blair Labour and Corbyn Labour, of Leave voters and Remain members, right wing wreckers and liberals masquerading as left.
‘Unless Corbyn sharply turns to Brexit and his heartlands and confronts and routs the Blairites it’s over.’