Labour Party vows to fight 'destructive Tory Brexit,' says it's open to 2nd referendum

Britain's opposition Labour Party will vote against any deal Prime Minister Theresa May clinches with the European Union and is open to a second referendum with the option of staying in the bloc, Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said on Tuesday.

British PM, whose Brexit plan doesn't have full support of Tories, has shut door on new referendum

Shadow secretary of state for Brexit Keir Starmer speaks at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool on Tuesday. Starmer's speech seemed to promise more uncertain times ahead in British Parliament as the country wrestles with the implications of a looming Brexit. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE)

Britain's opposition Labour Party will vote against any deal Prime Minister Theresa May clinches with the European Union and is open to a second referendum with the option of staying in the bloc, Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer said on Tuesday.

With just over six months until Britain leaves the European Union, May has yet to reach a deal with Brussels on the terms of the divorce, and her plan for future trade ties has been rebuffed by both the EU and many lawmakers in her own Conservative Party.

May says she will press on with her proposals, and branded Labour's intention to vote against any agreement that falls short of its demands as "not in the national interest."

Labour has listed six tests it would apply to any Brexit deal, including whether it ensured a strong future relationship with the EU and delivered the same benefits Britain has as a member of the bloc's single market and customs union.

Starmer said May was on course to fail these tests.

He called for an election to allow a Labour government to steer Britain's departure from the EU, the biggest shift in the country's foreign and trade policy in decades.

"If Theresa May brings back a deal that does not meet our tests — and that looks increasingly likely — Labour will vote against her deal," he told Labour members at the party's conference in the northern city of Liverpool.

He repeated Labour's argument that if Parliament rejected May's Chequers deal, named after the prime minister's country residence where she hashed out a plan with her ministers, the party would press for a general election.

Britain's Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said how he would vote on a theoretical second referendum would depend on the phrasing of the question. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

"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," he said to a standing ovation and prolonged applause in a packed conference hall as the party meets in Liverpool.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn backed his Brexit shadow minister, but declined to say which way he would vote in a possible second referendum because "it depends what the question is."

"We will challenge this government. If they don't meet our six tests, we will vote against it, and then we will take it from there," he said in a television interview.

Labour overwhelmingly approved its Brexit motion with a show of hands on Tuesday, paving for the way for the party to reject any deal with the EU that fails to meets its tests and to keep open the option of a second referendum.

Only a few members of Britain's main opposition party were seen to vote against the motion.

'Betrayal' of Labour voters: party supporter

An internal EU document seen by Reuters on Tuesday reiterated the bloc's rejection of Chequers, saying it would "give the U.K. an unfair competitive advantage," but it welcomed her proposal of a free-trade are" as "the starting point."

As for a possible new referendum, EU officials have voiced their doubts.

"That does not sound like a solution to anything. The first referendum is still keeping us busy. And will they want to have a third one in another two years?" asked a senior EU diplomat in Brussels. "It's more about power struggles in Britain than about managing Brexit seriously."

May, speaking to reporters on her way to the UN General Assembly in New York, said Labour would hurt the country by opposing any deal "regardless of how good it is for the U.K.," accusing the party of being ready to "accept any deal Europe gives, regardless of how bad it is."

"That's not in the national interest. What we're doing is in the national interest."

But with May's plan for maintaining close ties with the EU for trade in goods facing opposition from her own lawmakers, she is aware of the crucial role Labour could play in getting a deal through Parliament.

May has a working majority of just 13 in the 650-seat Parliament and a former junior minister said this month as many as 80 of her own lawmakers were prepared to vote against a Brexit deal based on the Chequers plan.

But like the governing Conservatives and much of the country, Labour is split over how to leave the bloc, with its veteran Euroskeptic leader Corbyn under pressure from many members to move to a more pro-EU position.

Members of the public march in support of the People's Vote campaign on Sunday in Liverpool, during the Labour Party's annual conference. The campaign calls for a public referendum on any deal reached by Britain and the European Union. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

Brendan Chilton, general secretary of Brexit campaigning group Labour Leave, accused Starmer of launching a leadership bid and of trying to undermine Corbyn.

"This is a betrayal of the very highest order. It is a betrayal not only of the millions of Labour voters, but of our 2017 manifesto," he said, referring to the party's campaign at last year's election that gained Labour more votes than many expected.

Labour's conference passed the motion with a show of hands on Tuesday to keep a second Brexit referendum as an option if May fails to get her Brexit plan through parliament.

The motion reiterates Labour's position on Brexit: it wants full participation in the EU's single market and will reject a so-called no-deal Brexit.

The wording on a possible second referendum was left vague, opening the way for some to describe it as a fudge when the party's finance spokesman, John McDonnell, said any such vote should be on how to leave the EU, not whether to do so.

But Starmer was clear. He understood that the motion could allow Britain to vote to stay in the EU.

"This isn't about frustrating the process," he said. "It's about stopping a destructive Tory Brexit. It's about fighting for our values and about fighting for our country."