Tom Watson, deputy leader of the UK opposition Labour Party, said he thought another Brexit referendum could be necessary if Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal can’t get support.
After months of trying to find a Brexit position that all wings of the Conservative Party could agree on, May seems to have given up, and gone for something that at least 20 — and probably more — of her lawmakers are likely to vote against. Without a majority in Parliament, she needs Labour either to vote with her or abstain, something the party is clear that it won’t do.
“We’re not sure if Theresa May now commands a majority in the House of Commons,” Watson told the BBC. On the question of what kind of Brexit deal might win the approval of parliament, he was pessimistic. “It’s conceivable that there’s no majority for any deal.”
He went on to say Labour is still open to another national vote on Brexit. Indeed, he said, there were circumstances where it might be necessary: A referendum might be the only way to break parliamentary deadlock. Labour’s position on another vote is a source of internal tension. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said at the weekend he saw another general election as the solution to parliament’s inability to agree.
But Watson’s decision to highlight the alternative is a reminder that many in Labour would like to stop Brexit altogether, and see a referendum as the only way to overturn a referendum.
It’s long been the view of May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell that whatever deal the prime minister comes up with, Labour will vote against it — the prize of bringing down the government is too tempting.
But Corbyn’s own relationship with his lawmakers is poor, and so it might be possible to split some of them off. On July 9, none of them sounded tempted. May would have to offer a much softer Brexit, staying in the EU’s customs union and probably its single market, several said.
Even if the PM were willing to go that far, Watson’s intervention was a reminder to Labour opponents of Brexit that the party has deliberately kept a second referendum on the table. It’s likely make it much harder for May to win any of them over to her side, however much she softens her position.