The shadow chancellor has said Labour would back a delay to Brexit to help secure a better withdrawal deal, as the party retreated from supporting a parliamentary vote on a second referendum this week.
John McDonnell said it was no longer the right time to vote on a second referendum on Tuesday, because the priority should be defeating May’s Brexit and then trying to help negotiate a better one.
He had previously said Labour would either put forward an amendment calling for a second referendum or support a backbench one at the time May put her Brexit deal to a vote on 12 March.
His comments will disappoint some in the party who want Labour to have a clear position in favour of a second referendum as the top priority. Senior figures in the People’s Vote campaign, however, believe there is not yet enough support in parliament for a second referendum. Alastair Campbell said this would only happen when “it becomes clear there is not a majority for any specific form of Brexit”.
McDonnell suggested Labour would back an extension to article 50 to give time to seek a better deal when that option is put to a vote on Thursday. He said the party could help to secure such agreement involving a customs union within weeks, but that article 50 should be extended as long as was necessary to strike a deal.
He said it was still Labour’s policy to support a second referendum, but only if parliament proved unable to agree on a better outcome than May’s withdrawal agreement.
He told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “We’ve got to abide by exactly what we’ve said at Labour party conference, which is we go through the sequence of respecting the referendum, preventing a reckless deal that Theresa May is bringing forward, preventing a no deal, looking to see how we can construct a deal which we think could protect jobs and the economy, and failing that going for a general election or failing that going back to the people.