Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaving the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday February 27, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Jeremy Corbyn leaves the Houses of Parliament after the votes on Wednesday evening © PA

Jeremy Corbyn has said that his opposition Labour party will formally back a new Brexit referendum after its own plan for the UK leaving the EU, including permanent membership of the European customs union, failed in a parliamentary vote.

“We will back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous no-deal outcome,” Mr Corbyn said on Wednesday night.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, told ITV that Labour would back a second referendum amendment when Theresa May presents her revised Brexit deal to MPs, which she has promised to do by March 12.

Mr Corbyn, however, in a move likely to frustrate Europhile Labour MPs, added that he would “continue to push” for other options, including Labour’s Brexit plan and a general election.

Labour’s plan failed by 323 votes to 240 in a House of Commons vote on Wednesday. The party had indicated this was the last step before it moved to supporting a second referendum. Mr Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, has long been more resistant to the idea than other Labour MPs, including Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary. He only agreed to the change in policy after eight pro-EU MPs resigned from the party.

A series of parliamentary votes on Wednesday evening were largely anti-climactic because Theresa May’s government had already conceded on the main points.

Significantly, more than 100 Tory MPs refused to back the prime minister’s plan to allow parliament to delay the UK’s departure from the EU if it rejects her Brexit deal again.

Members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs used a vote on a parliamentary amendment by Labour’s Yvette Cooper to express their disquiet at Mrs May’s willingness to countenance delaying Brexit beyond March 29.

The rebellion meant that the government’s plan was supported by more Labour MPs than Tory MPs. Twenty Tories voted against the government-backed amendment, while more than 80 abstained. Nine Democratic Unionist party MPs and 11 Labour MPs also abstained.

This week has seen major Brexit shifts from both of the UK’s main political parties — Labour moving to support a second referendum and Mrs May shifting tack to allow the option of a delay to the date that Britain leaves the EU. The delay has increasingly been seen as necessary because MPs voted against Mrs May’s original deal last month and she has so far failed to agree significant changes with Brussels. She has promised to give MPs a vote on a revised Brexit deal by March 12, and if they reject both it and a no-deal Brexit, another vote on extending Article 50 on March 14.

Ms Cooper’s amendment — restating those commitments given by Mrs May on Tuesday — was accepted by the government. In total 502 MPs voted in its favour, but the hardcore of Eurosceptics, who have played down the risks of a no-deal Brexit, voted against.

Also on Wednesday a Conservative MP, Alberto Costa, was sacked from his junior position at the Scotland Office, because he broke a rule preventing members of the government from proposing amendments.

Mr Costa had wanted to protect EU nationals’ rights in case of a no-deal Brexit. His dismissal came even though the government accepted his plan, agreeing to “write to the EU institutions . . . in the coming days” to seek commitments from Brussels.

Mrs May, who met Mr Costa on Wednesday before his departure, had previously argued that his amendment could not be accepted, because it required the UK government to make provision for the EU’s treatment of British nationals abroad, something it is legally unable to do and which will become the responsibility of EU member states if there is a no-deal Brexit.

A Scottish National party amendment seeking to block a no-deal Brexit in all circumstances was defeated by 324 to 288.

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