Keir Starmer has urged Labour MPs to stop thinking how to “rub out” Brexit and instead focus on how to get the best deal for Britain outside the EU.
Speaking to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night, the Shadow Brexit Secretary said that a second EU referendum couldn’t be held until 2021 at the earliest and even then would face “obvious” practical problems.
In what was seen by MPs as a hardening of his stance on a second vote, HuffPost can reveal that Starmer warned that Nigel Farage was probably backing a re-run because he thought Vote Leave would win again.
His remarks follow weeks of mixed messages from Labour over a new referendum, with Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott appearing to tell constituents she wanted one - but then insisted she had been misunderstood.
Deputy leader Tom Watson “you shouldn’t rule anything out”, and Jeremy Corbyn had appeared to imply the position had not been settled last year. The Labour leader this weekend insisted he was not “calling for” a re-run vote.
But Farage delighted former Remain campaigners by floating the idea last week, only to swiftly insist he didn’t ‘want’ a new vote.
With a high proportion of Labour members looking to keep the option open, several backbench MPs have pushed hard for the party to commit to give the public - and not just Parliament - a say over the final deal Theresa May hammers out with Brussels later this year.
Tony Blair said earlier this month that the country should have a chance to ‘think again’ about membership of the EU, either through a general election or new referendum.
Starmer was treated ‘respectfully’ by MPs as he updated them on Labour’s plans to vote against the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s Third Reading due this week in the Commons.
The party will vote against the bill because its six tests - including the ‘exact same benefits’ of EU single market and customs union - will not by met by the Conservatives.
With the UK on course to leave the EU in March 2019, backbencher Wes Streeting and others quizzed him hard on issues such as a second referendum and EU trade.
“Turning to a second referendum, the first rule of thumb for me is that if Nigel Farage wants it be careful,” Starmer replied. “He’s not proposing it because he thinks he’s going to lose it.”
“I have always understood the reason why people argue for a second referendum because there was a sense of injustice [during the referendum campaign] that while ‘in’ was defined ‘out’ wasn’t defined.
“And on the ‘out’ page, people wrote a series of things that weren’t true such as £350 million for the NHS.
“But there are a number of obvious difficulties [with a second referendum]. I don’t think we’re going to know what ‘out’ looks like at 2021 at the earliest.
“And therefore the only point you’ll be able to measure out is in several years’ time, but we will have exited the EU in 2019; and therefore ‘in’ is no longer an option.”
However, Starmer added that it wasn’t just the “practical problems people aren’t facing up to on a second referendum.”
“There is also something more fundamental than that.
“If we sit here as a party aspiring to govern then we have got to recognise that if we spend all that time looking back in grief about what many of us didn’t want to happen, thinking how do we rub it out then we are unable to do what we need to do which is to fight for the [final deal] that reflects what we stand for and that is right for Britain in the 21st century.
“It is a really important distinction: are we looking back in grief or looking forward to the challenge of the future.
“If we put all of our energy into calling for a second referendum we will stop the work we need to be doing which is why we have consistently said we’re not calling for a second referendum.”
One MP present said that “Keir carries enormous goodwill from us” but said his remarks “felt like a real hardening of the frontbench position”.
Late last year, Corbyn told a European Socialist Party conference that Labour has “not made any decision on a second referendum.”
On Sunday, he told Robert Peston that he was “not supporting or calling for” a second referendum, although he did want MPs to have a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal May produces.
Starmer said in December: “Things are moving so fast it’s hard to know what’s going to come next, but we are not calling for a second referendum.”