Richard Leonard gave what opponents called a “car crash” interview to the BBC in which he rejected growing demands for Labour to embrace a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal.
Jeremy Corbyn has said he will seek a general election if Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal with Brussels is voted down on Tuesday as expected, but polls suggest the party could lose all but one of its MPs in Scotland if it went into a snap election promising to leave the EU.
Mr Leonard said in a TV interview yesterday that Labour’s stance in the event of a snap election was “not a matter of campaigning for or against Brexit”.
“There has been a referendum in which people overall decided that we should leave the European Union and I have said repeatedly that I think the job of elected politicians is to look at the best way of extracting the best deal under those circumstances,” he said.
Mr Leonard acknowledged there were “a range of views” within his party, but said: “Our policy on Brexit so far has been to try to secure the best deal. The manifesto of the Labour Party will be decided by the Labour Party.”
SNP deputy leader Keith Brown described Labour’s position on Brexit as “laughable”. He said: “Labour have proved that they are gearing up, once again, to sell out the people of Scotland – this time on Brexit. Their members must be in despair.
“Demanding a general election without a position on the biggest political issue of the day is the height of incompetence. In fact, it’s laughable.”
Catherine Stihler, the Labour MEP for Scotland, said that if the party does not oppose Brexit, it would be failing the communities its represents.
“If a general election is called, it is absolutely vital that Labour stands on a platform to oppose Brexit,” Ms Stihler said.
“It would be calamitous if both the Tories and Labour went into that election promising to facilitate Brexit, particularly in Scotland.”
Scottish Conservative MP Stephen Kerr said: “This car crash interview makes clear once again the utter disarray of Labour’s position on Brexit.
“Richard Leonard wants a general election but cannot confirm if it would be pro- or anti-Brexit. It’s pathetic.
“It shows a complete lack of leadership from a weak party that simply cannot stand up to the SNP in Scotland.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Labour voters are overwhelmingly pro-European and every single Labour seat in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. They have been waiting and waiting for Richard Leonard to do the right thing.
“On the basis of today’s interview, Richard Leonard hasn’t got the faintest clue what his own policy might be. What an utter abdication of leadership.”
In a sign of Labour’s continued divisions, Corbyn ally Diane Abbott insisted yesterday that Labour is “committed to honouring” the Brexit vote despite backbench warnings that it will damage the communities they represent.
The shadow home secretary said her party campaigned in 2016 on “remain and reform” of the EU and pushed for a “jobs-first Brexit” at the 2017 general election.
She also outlined her “immaculate record” of voting against measures which enabled further EU integration.
Speaking on the third day of the re-started Brexit deal debate, Ms Abbott said: “I want to stress for Members on this side of the House that we are committed to honouring the referendum vote, and more than that we understand what moved so many millions of our fellow citizens to vote for Brexit.”
Labour backbencher Mike Gapes intervened, asking: “She says we are committed to honouring the referendum vote – does she mean we will support Brexit even if it damages the very communities that we as Labour Members of Parliament represent?”
To laughter, Ms Abbott replied: “I’d like to thank my honourable friend for his helpful intervention. Actually, the position of the Labour Party was set out in the manifesto which both he and I campaigned on. We are committed to a jobs-first Brexit which will not harm our economy. But I repeat, we want to honour the referendum vote.”
Mr Gapes, the MP for Ilford South, later claimed his party was in a “bizarre position” over Brexit, noting: “According to the brief from the Parliamentary Labour Party this week we’re going for a ‘sensible Brexit’, whatever that is.
“The reality is all over the country we know there is no such thing as a jobs-first Brexit, it is entirely about mitigating the damage.”
Mr Gapes said he did not believe any government would have negotiated “anything very different” to what Mrs May has, adding: “There’s no socialist Brexit, there’s no jobs-first Brexit, there’s no better Brexit.”
Meanwhile, one Labour former minister said he was close to supporting Mrs May’s Brexit deal.
Jim Fitzpatrick said: “I’m talking myself into supporting the Prime Minister’s deal next Tuesday against no deal and against further delay. I’m not quite there yet but I’m not far away.
“At some point we need to recognise the danger of no deal is still there and the only real alternative on the table is the Prime Minister’s deal.”