Sadiq Khan has set out the possibility of Britain remaining within the EU, arguing that Brexit could be legitimately stopped if the Labour party included the pledge in an election manifesto or committed to a second referendum.
In a considered and powerful intervention that could raise the hopes of remain supporters, the London mayor described himself as “an optimist” about the possibility of the UK staying part of the European Union.
But he said it was only possible to “trump the referendum” of 2016 in which 52% opted to leave the EU with a fresh, democratic vote, which could be delivered through the next general election or a national vote on the final Brexit deal.
“For it to have credibility with the British public, there would have to be a Labour manifesto offer, because the public would say, not unreasonably, ‘Hold on a sec, we voted to leave and you’re now sticking two fingers up at us’,” he said.
“You’d have to spell out, in black and white, what we’d do if we won the general election. What could trump the referendum result is us having a manifesto offer saying, we would not leave the EU, or we would have a second referendum.”
The comments are likely to fuel Labour’s divisions on Brexit, as the leadership is adamant that the party should respect the result of 28 June last year, but some MPs believe Labour should fight for a second referendum.
The party has been pulled in different directions over Brexit by those who warn of the risk of losing working-class voters across the north if there is any loosening in support for leaving the EU, and those who warn of the fiercely pro-EU views of Labour members. The Guardian recently revealed that an overwhelming majority of Labour members support staying in the single market and customs union, and favour a second vote.
Labour’s position has softened in recent days, with Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, making clear that staying in the single market and customs union should stay on the table, contradicting previous remarks by Jeremy Corbyn and Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary.
But the shadow cabinet is united overall in the view that Labour should be in favour of carrying out Brexit. In response to Khan’s comments, a Labour spokesman said: “Labour respects the result of the referendum and is making the case for a jobs-first Brexit through securing full tariff-free access to the European single market.”
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, told the Guardian in an interview that there was “absolutely no way you can disrespect the way the people voted”.
“If it was a popular thing on the streets of Britain, there could be another referendum, but until the general public has a change of heart, we’re going to exit Europe,” she said. “The public can make their feelings clear, and there can be a groundswell for it. Politicians are political animals; they’re savvy. That’s why most of them are saying they respect the vote. But MPs haven’t changed their mind on Brexit. Most of them are weeping. They want to stay in Europe because they think this is going to be really damaging. If I got a feeling in my constituency that the public wanted to remain, I’d say: ‘Brake!’”
The government appears also to have softened its position on Brexit over the past week, as Philip Hammond, the chancellor, made clear the cabinet was united on the need for a transitional period maintaining free movement of people and goods for up to three years after leaving the EU in 2019.
However, the Conservatives, like Labour, will not hear any arguments for a second referendum, arguing that the vote is binding and the wishes of the voters must be carried out.
Khan gave his alternative view on the possibility of reversing Brexit as the Guardian shadowed him over a week, watching him face his weekly question and answer session, share a stage with his mayoral counterpart in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, and welcome a delegation of EU ambassadors to City Hall in London.
He told the ambassadors that he hoped the EU flag, flying outside the glass-fronted mayoral building on the banks of the Thames, would stay there forever.
The mayor also expressed a belief that the capital’s prospects for business will be hit by the country’s EU exit, which was opposed by a solid majority of Londoners. “It’s illogical to assume we can have a better deal or as good a deal with the EU outside the EU. It wouldn’t happen with a tennis club, or any club.”
Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson, welcomed the mayor’s remarks. He said: “This is an important intervention. There is growing recognition in parliament and beyond that we need a vote on the final deal, as the Liberal Democrats have long argued. Nobody voted to be made poorer, but the extreme that Theresa May is choosing is making Britain poorer already, and that’s even before we leave the single market.
“Moderates such as the mayor now need to persuade Jeremy Corbyn because so far he has been Theresa May’s best friend on Brexit, ordering his MPs into the lobbies to vote for a Conservative-Ukip Brexit.”
On the question of Trump, Khan said: “I’m a reluctant participant in this dialogue with Donald Trump, because I’m trying to be a full-time mayor doing my job, and I’m not sure what he and his son have against me, and why they are tweeting about me. We’re not schoolchildren.
“He’s the president of the United States, so I’m unclear what his beef is with me.”
Trump hit out at the mayor in the hours after people were killed and injured in the terror attack in the centre of London, taking his attempts to reassure Londoners about an increased police presence out of context.
The president tweeted: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!”
His son, Donald Trump Jr, added “you have to be kidding me” after Khan said that terror attacks were part of living in a big city.
Asked if his Islamic faith might play a role in his reaction to the attacks, Khan said that if that was the case it was more about Trump than him. “Look, it’s perfectly possible to be an American or a Brit and a Muslim. They are not mutually exclusive, and for anybody to think that – I can’t understand it, not for people who hold important power.”
- The Guardian’s full interview with Sadiq Khan will be published on the morning of Saturday 28 July
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