Tom Watson today risked an all-out Labour civil war as he claimed the 2016 Brexit vote was no longer ‘valid’ and called for a second referendum to be held before a general election.
The deputy Labour leader dropped a Brexit bombshell on Jeremy Corbyn as he insisted he had ‘for a very long time’ respected the result of the EU referendum.
But he said there ‘eventually comes a point’ and the UK was ‘past it now’ when the ‘circumstances are so changed’ that the decision to leave the EU should be revisited.
Mr Watson put himself on a collision course with Mr Corbyn as he said a general election would not break the Brexit impasse and insisted a second referendum would and should be held first.
The Labour leader believes there should be a general election and then a referendum.
Mr Watson also said Labour must now unequivocally back Remain.
The argument over sequencing illustrates how divided the party’s leadership is on Brexit with things expected to come to a head at Labour’s annual conference later this month.
Mr Watson’s comments on the validity of the 2016 vote also put him directly at odds with Labour’s 2017 election manifesto in which the party said it ‘accepts the referendum result’ and committed to taking the UK out of the EU.
His comments will be poorly received by many Labour MPs who represent Leave-voting constituencies.
But they are likely to be welcomed by the majority of the party’s activists who back the UK staying in the bloc.
Tom Watson, pictured in London today, has called for a second referendum to be held before an early general election
Jeremy Corbyn, pictured in Brighton at the TUC congress yesterday, wants an election to be held before a second referendum
Speaking in London today, Mr Watson said he had respected the 2016 result but that had now changed.
‘There comes a point when you have to say actually no,’ he said.
‘That years’ old plebiscite is no longer a valid basis on which to take such a momentous decision about the future of the United Kingdom.
‘The only proper way to proceed in such circumstances is to consult the people again in a referendum with a credible option to leave and remain on the ballot paper as Labour has committed to do.
‘Why are Boris Johnson’s Tory factions so terrified of that? If there is still a majority for Brexit what do they have to fear?
‘If there isn’t any more how can it then be democratic to leave just because there used to be a majority for it more than three years ago when so many things were different?’
Mr Watson said that the ‘only way to break the Brexit deadlock once and for all is a public vote in a referendum’.
‘Let’s deal with Brexit in a referendum where every person can have their say and then come together and fight an election on Labour’s positive social agenda on our own terms, not on Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘do or die’,’ he added.
Calling for Labour to back Remain, he said: ‘There is no such thing as a good Brexit deal, which is why I believe we should advocate for Remain.’
Sir Keir Starmer tried to downplay Labour divisions as he said the party was open to a debate about the best way forward on Brexit.
Asked on Sky News if Mr Watson’s intervention was helpful, Sir Keir said: ‘What we don’t do in the Labour Party is close down debate… we encourage it, listening to what the trade unions say, listening to what our members say, listening to what members of Parliament say, to come to a collective decision on this.
Mr Watson, pictured today, said a second referendum was the only way to break the Brexit impasse
‘I think that that is the spirit in which I have always approached this.’
The Conservative Party responded with anger to Mr Watson’s speech and suggested that holding a second referendum would delay a general election by at least a year.
Tory chairman James Cleverly said Labour was ‘running scared’ of an election, adding: ‘Labour’s deputy leader makes clear Labour want to cancel the referendum result.
‘This latest trick would mean delaying Brexit again for up to a year, handing over £250million a week to Brussels for no purpose.’
Mr Watson’s plan would see Mr Johnson continuing in office for months without a parliamentary majority – creating a zombie government.
Mr Corbyn, along with other opposition leaders, has said that he will support an early election once a Brexit delay beyond October 31 has been agreed with the EU in order to prevent a No Deal divorce.
Labour has pledged to then hold a referendum on a Labour Brexit deal but it is unclear what the party’s position would be in such a vote.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, suggested earlier this month that Labour would negotiate a deal with Brussels but that she would then campaign to Remain at the subsequent referendum.