Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith has broken ranks with Jeremy Corbyn to back a referendum on the final Brexit deal the UK strikes with the EU.
Smith, who challenged Corbyn for the Labour leadership in 2016, has said his party can only “serve democracy” by offering voters another say once the “true costs” of breaking from the bloc were clear.
In an interview with the Guardian, the Pontypridd MP revealed his move was driven by the threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland.
“Labour needs to do more than just back a soft Brexit or guarantee a soft border in Ireland,” he said.
Smith added the Government would fail to deliver on any of the promises Vote Leave made during the Brexit campaign.
He said: “Given that it is increasingly obvious that the promises which the Brexiters made to the voters, especially, not only their pledge of an additional £350m a week for the NHS, are never going to be honoured, we have the right to ask if Brexit remains the right choice for the country. And to ask, too, that the country has a vote on whether to accept the terms and true costs of that choice once they are clear.”
Northern Irish people living on the border have told HuffPost UK of their fears that a hard Brexit could lead to civil disruption.
Labour backed remaining in a customs union with the European Union post-Brexit, but scores of the party’s pro-EU membership want Corbyn to go further.
But Corbyn has always maintained that the party must honour the result of the EU referendum.
Smith’s words will embolden pro-single market Labour MPs, often corralled by former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who have previously rebelled against the party’s stance on Europe.
Smith added: “The damage a disorderly and ill-thought out Brexit could do in Ireland is enormous. We are often told Brexit threatens to ‘reimpose’ a so-called hard border on the island of Ireland, but that understates the problem. Because the economic border that a hard Brexit would create on Ireland would be the hardest ever,” he says.
“If we insist on leaving the EU then there is realistically only one way to honour our obligations under the Good Friday agreement and that is to remain members of both the customs union and the single market. I’m pleased my party has taken a big step in this direction by backing continued Customs Union membership, but we need to go further.”
The EU Council this week backed Theresa May’s Brexit transition deal at a summit in Brussels, which extends Britain’s de facto EU membership until the end of 2020.
Brexit Minister Steve Baker accused Labour of trying to block Brexit.
“Just as we secure important progress on Brexit by agreeing an implementation period with the EU, Labour are once again trying to frustrate the Brexit process,” he said.
“These comments show that on one of the biggest issues facing the country, Labour have no interest in making a success of it, betraying millions of Labour voters.
“Only the Conservatives are getting on with delivering what British people voted for, taking back control of our laws, borders and money.”
Umunna backed Smith, publishing a statement via the pro-single market campaign group Open Britain: “Owen Smith is absolutely right when he says that Labour needs to go further in opposing the government on Brexit.
“The Brexiters made many promises to voters that we now know cannot be delivered on. They told us that we had nothing to worry about over Ireland, when it is plain they were clueless about the issues involved. They pledged us £350 million a week for the NHS when the reality is that Brexit threatens to do deep damage to our health service.
“If we are not going to be offered the Brexit we were promised we have every right to ask whether Brexit is the right path for the country.”
Pro-EU group Best for Britain’s CEO Eloise Todd added: “Owen Smith is right. The Tory government Brexit path is disastrous, particularly for Northern Ireland, and Labour need to provide real opposition and ask the difficult questions including: is Brexit the right course for this country?
“Everyone in this country deserves a say over their future, and Labour should push for a people’s vote on the terms of Brexit.”