Why Corbyn’s second referendum announcement changes everything – even if he’s still lukewarm

Aaron Chown/PA

Why Corbyn’s second referendum announcement changes everything – even if he’s still lukewarm

Qualified, tempered, cautious. As ever with Jeremy Corbyn and Europe, his announcement that the Labour Party would support a new public vote on Brexit is not straightforward. Yes, Labour would support a new vote, but only after it has put a motion on its own Brexit plan forward for a vote in the House of Commons.

Is this a genuine attempt, to take Corbyn at his own word, to stop a chaotic, Tory Brexit? Or is the announcement actually a cynical ploy to get at least some form of Brexit through the Commons? Remainers despairing at Corbyn’s handling of Brexit could be forgiven for worrying that it could be the latter, and the mixed messages coming out of the Labour Party HQ would not have settled the nerves.

Whichever of these analyses is the more accurate, one thing is for sure: the Brexit debate has changed beyond recognition as a result of this move. For the first time, the idea of second referendum moved centre-stage in UK politics, and became the talking point of front bench politicians. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told Channel 4 News that should parliament vote for a second referendum, both she and Corbyn would campaign for Remain. Barry Gardiner, who has consistently argued that a second referendum would undermine democracy, told Newsnight that this was a significant policy. He was effectively (if reluctantly) supporting a second public vote.

However this all plays out, this announcement means the competing narratives on Brexit will now shift – and the direction of travel inside and outside of parliament might not be fully under Corbyn’s control.

Opening the floodgates

A crucial shift in narrative will be around the concept of a second referendum itself. The 17.4m-strong Leave vote of 2016 has held a vice-like grip on the public psyche. It has been held up as a huge, democratic expression of the “will of the people”. Leaver and Remainer alike have buckled under the pressure of this hallowed will: the people have spoken, the politicians must enact their desire.

Now, however, politicians have the chance to discuss the idea of a second vote free from that type of pressure. They can discuss the vote as part of the official policy of the party of opposition. Crucially, Labour can frame this policy not as a rerun of the original referendum but as the only option left. The government has handled Brexit disastrously and now the people must have their say on whether to proceed.

Calls have been growing for a people’s vote for some time. PA

This might not sound like much, but in the oppositional, two-party duopoly in the UK parliament it is everything – the whole of the Commons machinery is set up to address issues in exactly this way, and parliament may finally get the chance to properly discuss a fresh referendum as a result. The support of the leader of the opposition is crucial for initiating the debate, but once that debate is up and running, Corbyn does not control it. He might be lukewarm on the matter, but parliament just needs him to open the door. It can then find its own momentum.

Preparing a campaign

As for either side of the Brexit debate itself, their narratives will shift too. Remainers can stop arguing for a referendum to be held. That need now speaks for itself. They can instead focus on what that referendum should ask and what the campaign should look like. In truth, this has been going on for months outside the mainstream political discussions. A quick glance at the Twitter feeds of the many groups who have been campaigning for a second vote since 2016 shows a shift in recent months away from decrying the many problems of the 2016 campaign and towards a more positive approach which champions European integration in general.

All of these things gain new momentum with even the merest suggestion that the national legislature is turning to discuss a second vote.

For Leavers too, the narratives shift significantly. For those MPs in the Labour Party who have consistently said another public vote would be a betrayal of the many constituencies who voted Leave, the rules of engagement have changed. In essence, the mandate they took from their constituents in 2016 is slowly being replaced by the mandate of an elected parliament debating the best way forward in 2019.

For the more extreme Leavers, the shift is no less dramatic. They may now be faced with a brutal truth that the parliament and the people are moving towards a rethink on Brexit in general, meaning that their only option to salvage any kind of Brexit may be to support an extension of Article 50 to buy some time – unthinkable even just a few days ago.

The Independent Group

Finally, there is one other narrative that will be crucial in the next few days: that of the emergence of and continuing need for the Independent Group. Let’s be clear here, this new formation has been absolutely central to the latest shift in Labour policy. With threats of up to 30 more Labour MPs defecting, Corbyn had no choice but to respond.

What the Independent Group does next will be crucial. Its ex-Labour members may be tempted to welcome the move and ease the tensions in the Labour Party. However, perhaps their strongest hand is to push home the point even more that Corbyn must be even clearer on the move towards a second referendum. This latter approach could be the most important narrative of all.

No matter what we think of the real motivation behind Corbyn’s announcement, all of these shifts in the key narratives around Brexit may actually mean that his own may motivations count for very little in the end: similar to what happened to May and her approach to Brexit, political realities mean the people and the politicians of the UK may move towards an outcome that he cannot fully control.