A standing ovation for 'remain' - European Movement
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A standing ovation for 'Remain'

For television viewers, the Labour conference Brexit highlight was perhaps the standing ovation for Keir Starmer's statement that nobody was taking "Remain" off the table when it comes to a public vote on the deal.


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Behind the scenes, much more was going on. Well over 100 constituency parties and a number of trade unions had submitted resolutions supporting a popular vote. Outside the conference centre, thousands marched in support in a rally on the Sunday. Inside the venue, dozens of fringe meetings addressed the issue.

But most important of all was the resolution - negotiated in a 6 hour meeting as a compromise between the motions submitted, and then adopted by an overwhelming majority by the conference. 

It is already subject to divergent interpretations, so let’s look carefully at its key commitments, which are spread across a long and sometimes rambling text.

Near the end, it taunts the government to directly hold a public vote on the deal, saying that if the government is confident that "working people, our economy and communities will benefit, they should not be afraid to put that deal to the public".  

But assuming a parliamentary vote is taken, it states that Labour must vote against the Tory Brexit deal unless it meets Labour’s six tests, which now seems extremely unlikely. If the deal is rejected by the House of Commons, and if this government defeat doesn’t trigger a general election (obviously a fervent hope of all Labour members, but one that is far from certain given the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act), it says all options must remain on the table – including a public vote. 

But, what are these options? One is actually ruled out by that same resolution: a ‘no deal’ Brexit. If both the deal and no-deal have been rejected, there can logically be only two remaining options: a different deal or no Brexit.

A different deal seems implausible. With the Tories still in government, what likelihood is there of something radically different? The government’s negotiating credibility would be in tatters. If it got a new deal at all, it would be marginally different or worse.

So the remorseless logic of the resolution leads to the only option left being to reconsider Brexit entirely. Legally, Parliament could do that – politically, however, it would require a referendum. Specifically referring to that possibility shows that there has been a significant evolution of Labour's position.

Some MPs still say such a referendum would be a gamble. I’m not so sure. The biggest gamble of all would be to proceed with a Brexit that poses huge risks to our economic wellbeing and security.