Jeremy Corbyn has conceded that Brexit may have to be delayed to allow Labour to get a better deal with the EU.
Ahead of next week’s crunch Commons vote on Theresa May’s plans, the Labour leader said the two-year Article 50 timetable could be extended beyond the planned leaving date of March 29.
Stating for the first time that Brexit could be postponed, Corbyn blamed Tory ‘chaos’ for any delay and made clear he would quickly demand a general election if the PM was defeated on Tuesday.
With the clock running down to a no-deal Brexit in the absence of any agreement with Brussels, his words also appeared to be designed to placate party members demanding a pause to allow a possible second referendum.
“An extension would be a possibility because clearly there has to be time to negotiate [with Brussels],” Corbyn said.
His words risk sparking the anger of both Tory Brexiteers and Labour voters who backed Leave, but Corbyn was careful to state he wanted to respect the verdict of the 2016 referendum.
Asked directly if he had forgotten young people by refusing to firmly commit to staying in the EU, the Labour leader replied that he had to balance all different views and unite the nation.
“I fully understand their wishes and their support for Remain and their wishes for a referendum, but I understand those communities who voted against,” he said.
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer first floated the idea of delaying Brexit on Wednesday, when he said that “it may well be inevitable” that Article 50 has to be extended because of the Parliamentary deadlock.
Referring to a no-deal exit, Starmer had added: “I actually genuinely think we can’t do it on 29 March this year.”
Corbyn said there were “no splits” between he and his shadow cabinet minister, stressing that “what Keir was reflecting” was that “quite clearly moving right up against the clock, there would need to be time for that negotiation”.
In his speech, the Labour leader said he wanted “a sensible Brexit deal that could win broad support” and would use a general election to unite the nation on a way forward.
“Any political leader who wants to bring the country together cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who wanted to leave, any more than they can ignore the concerns of the 16 million who voted to remain.”
Corbyn said if May lost the vote next week, “then there must be a general election at the earliest opportunity”.
He said Labour will “table a motion of no confidence in the government at the moment we judge it to have the best chance of success”, but accepted the party “does not have enough MPs” to force an election on its own.
“This political chaos cannot go on, the only way out of it would be a general election.”
Corbyn also attacked a suggestion that May would adopt a backbench Labour move to bind worker rights into her Brexit plan. The idea had been “quite emphatically rejected by the TUC and leading unions” because it would not be legally binding, he said.
Earlier this week, digital minister Margot James became the first member of the government to publicly admit that ‘we may have to extend Article 50’ to avoid crashing out of the EU with no deal.