The leader of the UK’s opposition Labour party has told colleagues that he is likely to stay neutral in a future EU referendum held by a government he leads, in a move that risks antagonising many of his party’s Remain supporters.
Allies of Jeremy Corbyn said his intention was to stay out of the fray if there was a second Brexit public vote and instead focus on running the country.
Mr Corbyn indicated his thinking during conversations with members of the shadow cabinet, according to several figures within the party.
While he would like to remain neutral, the leader would allow senior colleagues to back either side of the campaign.
That would be in line with the approach taken by Harold Wilson, former Labour leader, in the original 1975 EU referendum as well as David Cameron’s stance as Tory leader in 2016.
Mr Corbyn, a longstanding Eurosceptic who leads a party with an overwhelmingly Europhile membership, is likely to come under pressure to clarify his personal position in public at the start of Labour’s annual conference in Brighton this weekend.
On Tuesday, the Labour leader wrote an article for the Guardian reiterating Labour’s current position of backing a second referendum if it came to power, in which there would be a choice between Remain and a new Labour-negotiated deal involving a customs union and close single market relationship.
He said that a Labour government would deliver whichever choice the British public made in that referendum. “I pledge to carry out whatever the people decide, as a Labour prime minister,” he wrote.
That pledge made Labour “the only UK-wide party ready to put our trust in the people of Britain” and “bring people together”, he added.
A spokesman for Mr Corbyn played down the idea that these words meant he would remain neutral in a referendum. But other Labour sources said that was an accurate representation of his current thinking.
The position is awkward for the Labour leader given he will come under huge pressure from grassroots members in Brighton to shift to a clear Remain position.
Mr Corbyn was one of the most fervent Eurosceptic MPs in the House of Commons for decades, although he bowed to the wishes of his party in 2016 and backed Remain in that plebiscite.
His team fears that an openly Remain position would alienate the 3m Labour voters, about a third, who backed Leave in the 2016 referendum.
More than 80 motions have been submitted to conference calling for a Remain stance, according to campaign group Another Europe Is Possible. Michael Chessum, national organiser for the group, said members were vital to the party and Mr Corbyn “ignores them at its peril”.
“Support for an explicit Remain stance is evidently overwhelming,” he said. “Only if Labour can get clarity on this part of its policy can it fight the election on its domestic agenda.”
The pro-EU motions submitted by constituencies include some calling for Labour to “support revoking Article 50 if necessary to prevent No Deal” while others say the party should “campaign energetically for a public vote and to Remain”.
Several senior party figures, including shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry have said they would campaign for Remain.
Labour has seen some of its pro-EU vote undercut by growing support for the Liberal Democrats, who have hardened their position in recent days into an explicit vow to cancel Brexit if they take office.
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