LONDON – Britain’s main opposition party took a step at its annual conference toward backing a new referendum on Brexit – but stopped short of saying the vote should include an option not to leave the European Union at all.
Delegates at the Labour Party conference in the northwestern English city of Liverpool will debate a motion Tuesday saying that if Parliament rejects the government’s Brexit deal, “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
The motion, whose wording was argued over during a five-hour meeting late Sunday, does not specify that a new referendum should include an option to remain in the EU, as many party members want.
Most of the party’s half-million members voted in 2016 to remain in the EU. But many of its 257 lawmakers represent areas that supported leaving, so Brexit poses an electoral dilemma for the left-of-center party.
With the U.K. and the EU now at an impasse in divorce talks, and just six months to go until Britain officially leaves on March 29, many Labour members think the party should try to force a new referendum that could reverse Britain’s decision to quit the 28-nation bloc.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other party chiefs oppose that idea, saying Labour must honor voters’ 2016 decision to leave. They say a better option would be a general election and a Labour government.
Party finance spokesman John McDonnell said Monday that “we argued for ‘remain’ in the past but we lost that vote so we have to respect that.”
But Labour lawmaker David Lammy, who backs a second vote, said a referendum offering the choice between “no deal or a bad deal” would be “farcical.”
“It absolutely must include the right to stay in the EU,” he said.
Labour is meeting after a rocky week for divorce negotiations between Britain and the EU.
The Conservative government’s blueprint for future trade ties with the bloc was rejected last week by EU leaders at a summit in Salzburg, Austria. That left Prime Minister Theresa May’s leadership under siege and Britain at growing risk of crashing out of the EU with no deal in place.
May insists her plan is still on the table. It seeks to keep the U.K. in the EU single market for goods but not for services, in order to ensure free trade with the bloc and an open border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
But EU officials say that amounts to unacceptable “cherry-picking” of elements of membership in the bloc without accepting all the costs and responsibilities.
May met Monday with her divided Cabinet, where some Brexit-supporting ministers are urging her to seek a looser relationship based on a bare-bones free trade agreement that would leave Britain free to strike new deals around the world.
Pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said Britain would prosper under a “Canada Plus” deal – a variation on the free trade agreement struck between Canada and the EU after years of negotiations.
May’s says a “Canada-style” deal would not prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Amid mounting uncertainty, the British government has stepped up preparations for leaving without an agreement – though it insists that outcome is unlikely.
On Monday, it published a new batch of documents outlining some disruptions to Britain’s economy and daily life that could be caused by a “no deal” Brexit.
The group of “technical notices” to businesses said British digital subscribers could be unable to access services such as Netflix when they travel in Europe, truckers could need special permits to transport goods to the EU, and planes between Britain and the continent could be grounded if there is no Brexit agreement.
The papers noted that airlines “would lose the automatic right to operate air services between the U.K. and the EU without seeking advance permission.”
“In this scenario the U.K. would envisage granting permission to EU airlines to continue to operate. We would expect EU countries to reciprocate in turn,” the document said.
Previous batches of papers said businesses could face red tape, customers could see higher credit card fees and patients could endure delays to medical treatment.
They even said Britain could get less warning of falling space debris from an EU agency if Britain crashes out of the bloc without a deal.
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