Sir Keir Starmer may have had a bit of a moment this morning when he was cheered by Labour conference delegates for going off script and making clear his view that any future referendum could include the option of remaining a member of the EU. But might it turn into a somewhat pyrrhic victory?
What Sir Keir said this morning was the opposite of what John McDonnell had told the Today Programme only 24 hours earlier. He said that in order not to disrespect the 2016 referendum result the ballot paper should only have two options - to accept a deal or not. At least I can respect the logic of that, even though I in no way support the idea of a second referendum.
Sir Keir did a media round this morning to declare the party was utterly united on its Brexit strategy, leading the Guido Fawkes blog to depict him as ‘Comical Keir’.
In his speech to the conference Sir Keir said that if a general election was not possible “then other options must be kept open - that includes campaigning for a public vote.”
It is right for Parliament to have the first say but if we need to break the impasse, our options must include campaigning for a public vote and nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.
The last eight words were not in the version of the speech handed out to journalists beforehand.
There are three consequences from this turn of events. One is that Brexit supporting Labour voters (35-40% of all Labour voters) are likely to be distinctly unimpressed and feel betrayed. No one knows how strongly they will feel, though. Is Brexit as an issue important enough to encourage them to withhold their vote from Labour in a future election, or even to hold their noses and vote Tory.
The second consequence is likely to see any votes lost being compensated for by gains from the Liberal Democrats. However, there’s a problem for Labour in that scenario. Most of those votes would either come to them in already safe Labour seats or in areas like Twickenham and Kingston where they not only don’t have a hope in hell of winning, but any loss in LibDem support could allow the Tories to slip through the middle and regain the seats they lost in 2017.
The third consequence of what’s happened in the last 24 hours is that Jeremy Corbyn might decide to reshuffle his front bench after the conference and move Keir Starmer to another brief, to be replaced with someone more pliant to the John McDonnell view of the Brexit world. If that happened, it’s hard to see Keir Starmer swallowing that, given it’s unlikely he would be offered one of the top three or four positions. But if he returned to the backbenches, he might then become another ‘King over the Water’ candidate to replace Corbyn when the time comes. Personally, I don’t see that, but he’s a bit of a darling of the media who would delight in building him up.
It’s quite clear now that Labour is almost as divided, or perhaps just as divided as the Tories on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats ought to make hay in this scenario but show absolutely no signs of doing so.