BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn won support for his Brexit strategy on Monday, fighting off a challenge by members who wanted him to immediately back remaining in the European Union before any election.
The vote at his party’s annual conference in the English seaside resort of Brighton was the latest outburst of dissent over Corbyn’s Brexit approach, overshadowing party officials’ attempts to present Labour as a government in waiting.
To howls of protest from pro-EU members and cheers from Corbyn supporters, the chairwoman of the conference said the bid to force a change in course on Brexit had failed - chaotic scenes that underlined Labour’s divisions over Brexit.
Instead, members fell into line and backed Corbyn’s stance to first try to win an election, renegotiate the Brexit deal and then hold a special conference to decide the party’s position - either to leave with a deal or remain - in a second referendum.
With Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisting that Britain will leave the EU on an Oct. 31 deadline, Labour, like the governing Conservatives, is struggling to agree a strategy on Brexit, increasing the uncertainty over Britain’s biggest foreign and trade policy shift in more than 40 years.
Corbyn, an instinctive leftist critic of the EU, has been under renewed pressure from party members and even some of his top team to unequivocally endorse remaining in the EU, and their rebellion had forced a vote between the two options.
The depth of feeling over Brexit was on show at conference, with even some members of his top team saying Corbyn should decide Labour’s position now, rather than wait for an election that is widely expected to be held by the end of the year.
Some members argued with the chairwoman’s decision to say that their bid had failed, suggesting that a simple showing of hands was not an accurate way to take a decision.
But Corbyn’s team breathed a sigh of relief that his position had been left intact.
“So @jeremycorbyn Brexit position triumphed at @UKLabour conference this afternoon,” his home affairs policy chief, Diane Abbott, said on Twitter. “The message is, despite the chatter from commentators, the party is determined to unite behind its leader.”
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, both parties are still deeply divided, leaving parliament deadlocked and heightening uncertainty over when, how and even whether Brexit will happen.
Corbyn has been criticised over what some describe as a vague stance on Brexit, with some in his party saying the lack of clarity has driven away Labour supporters, lowering the likelihood of any election victory.
According to a new opinion poll on Monday, more than half of voters who backed Labour at a 2017 election think it is now time for Corbyn to stand down.
Corbyn’s Brexit policy chief, Keir Starmer, said he was disappointed with the result of the vote, but felt that Labour would end up campaigning for remain further down the road.
“Would I have liked us to have a gone bit further on that vote today? Of course I would,” he told a Politico event at conference. “I’ve got a pretty clear idea, I think, of where the members are on this, therefore I think it’s very likely that the members will want us to campaign for remain.”
Brexit disputes have damaged Corbyn’s leadership, and on Monday even some of his closest allies said his plan to force through his idea was “a travesty”.
Jon Lansman, whose leftist Momentum movement was created to support Corbyn, had urged Labour members “to vote with their conscience”, and the country’s biggest union, Unison, had said it would back the “remain” stance because it was worried ambiguity could hurt the party’s election chances.
But so far, Corbyn’s neutral strategy has held. He said on Sunday it was more important to hold the party together by embracing its “remainers” and those who want to leave the bloc.
Asked whether Labour would campaign to stay in the EU or to leave with a deal, Corbyn said he would be guided by his party.
“I am leading the party, I am proud to lead the party, I am proud of the democracy of the party and of course I will go along with whatever decision the party comes to,” Corbyn said.
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper Editing by Mark Heinrich