Ah, fudge. It’s temptingly sweet in small chunks, but everyone knows too much of it can either make you sick or rot your teeth in the long run.
That maxim applies at Labour conference in Liverpool, where the party has crafted a cavity-threatening motion on a second Brexit referendum.
It took five and a half hours and six versions, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer were both pleased with the new ‘composite’ motion hammered out just before midnight on Sunday.
You can read the full wording in our report, but the key line is: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”.
The phrase ‘on the table’ is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that sentence and Remainers are split between those who see it as a step in the right direction and those upset that it didn’t commit explicitly to a referendum.
For anyone hoping to see Labour’s leadership match the demands of its members (more than 85% of them back a ‘People’s Vote’), in the end it was as much an anti-climax as the finale of Bodyguard.
Yet Labour compositing meetings are often about watering down tricky motions and avoiding delegates tying the hands of the Shadow Cabinet, or indeed Cabinet. And it could have been worse for Remainers, as the penultimate version of the motion talked only of ‘a public vote on the terms of Brexit’, ruling out the option of staying in the EU.
I’m told a key moment last night came when the GMB union, which had kept quiet for four and a half hours in the meeting, offered the final, fudgy version that found a consensus.
The motion goes to the conference floor on Tuesday, but the wording has ensured that it won’t be – to coin a phrase – a meaningful vote.
And it’s worth reiterating that even if Parliament votes down May’s Brexit deal this autumn, the government will not provide the Commons time or legislation needed for a second referendum.
The only circumstances under which one could possibly happen is if it appears in a Labour manifesto for a general election. If the party were to include the option of staying in the EU, then all the chatter about a new political party (we have a BMG poll showing 58% would consider voting for one) may disappear.
Moderate Tories and Lib Dems would be tempted to hold their nose about Corbyn’s leftwing politics and vote Labour simply to grasp at a last chance to stay in the EU. That may be yet another reason why no Tory PM would risk another general election before 2022.
But on the Today programme, John McDonnell seemed to go further than the carefully worked compromise of last night, offering a bittersweet fudge of his own.
He declared Labour ‘will go for a People’s vote’ if May fails to offer a general election. Yes, ‘will’. He then also suggested staying in the EU would not be on the ballot paper, only the terms of Brexit under a Labour government (Norway with some migration curbs?).
There’s lots of questions this throws up. Why would a Labour government risk possible defeat in a referendum on its own version of Brexit? Why bother with a referendum and not simply put the terms of Brexit in a Labour manifesto? And if May has already ruled out another snap poll, won’t the whole EU-UK landscape have changed by the time of the 2022 election?