Jeremy Corbyn is set to unequivocally back a second Brexit referendum after Britain’s biggest unions agreed for the first time that the issue should be put back to the public.
The Labour leader is poised to make a major announcement in the wake of the “common position” agreed by the 12 trade unions to support a “confirmatory vote” on any plan to take the UK out of the EU.
HuffPost UK understands that Corbyn’s shadow cabinet will discuss the unions’ shift on Tuesday and he will make a statement clarifying the new stance within hours.
Labour MPs and some of Corbyn’s closest allies have spent weeks warning that the party risks losing support to the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru at the next general election unless it comes out strongly for a fresh referendum.
The party suffered humiliating defeats in the Euro and local elections this year amid public confusion over its stance on Brexit.
But after a crunch meeting of union bosses on Monday, Unite - whose general secretary Len McCluskey was seen as one of the key obstacles to a new vote - has now formally signed up to a second referendum plan along with Unison, the GMB, Usdaw, CWU, TSSA and others.
The unions affiliated to Labour backed a twin-track strategy of campaigning to remain in the EU in the event of a Tory deal or no-deal Brexit, while also committing to a referendum on a better deal hammered out by a new Corbyn government.
One senior party source said: “Labour has never before picked a side in a second referendum. We have just said previously it would be an ‘option’ to campaign for a second vote.
“Now the unions are saying we should not just have a referendum on any Brexit but also campaign to remain in the EU. That’s a big deal.”
The unions’ agreement, passed to HuffPost UK, details how “Labour should campaign to stay in the European Union” in the event of any referendum on a Tory deal or no-deal.
It then sets out a second scenario in which Labour wins a snap election, tries to negotiate a better Brexit deal and then offers a referendum with Labour’s plans and remain as the two options.
“The Labour Party’s campaign position on such a ballot should depend on the deal negotiated,” the document adds.
One union source said that the new position would prevent a mass revolt at the Labour conference this September, when local parties have pushed hard with motions calling for a clear ‘referendum and remain’ stance.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than having your leader get defeated in a conference vote,” they said.
Deputy leader Tom Watson tweeted a guarded welcome for the announcement.
“Today is a step in the right direction but our members and supporters are clear that any kind of Brexit gives us less than we have now and Labour should not support it,” he said.
Labour MPs backing a ‘People’s Vote’ welcomed the unions’ shift as a “step forward”, even though some were sceptical about the caveat that the general secretaries added to suggest the party was undecided about how it would campaign in a referendum on its own deal.
“They have to say what they do about a general election or renegotiation to save Len’s blushes,” one MP said. “But by the time we get to that it’s inconceivable given the damage Brexit has done that the mood in the Labour movement won’t be to call the whole disaster off.”
“The most important thing is the here and now,” another senior source added. “What goes into our manifesto for the next election will be determined not just by the unions but by the rest of the party.”
Former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw said: “This is excellent news and a very welcome shift in the position of Unite. We have been haemorrhaging voters and losing members to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and nationalist parties because of our ambiguity on Brexit.
“The whole Labour movement must now get behind this policy and campaign for it with conviction.”
One ally of Corbyn said: “A couple of the shadow cabinet will still be unhappy, but Jeremy will now have the unions united, the PLP, almost all his shadow team and lots of members behind this new position.”
A Labour source added: “Jeremy is working to unite the party and wider labour movement around a common agreed position.”