Jeremy Corbyn has revealed he will take a “neutral stance” in a second EU referendum if Labour form the next government.
The Labour leader cast further doubt on his party’s Brexit position, saying he would not campaign either for a new Brexit deal negotiated by his own government, or to remain in the EU.
Labour members agreed at their conference in September that there would be a special conference to decide which way the party would campaign in the event of a second EU referendum.
However, taking part in a Question Time election special, Mr Corbyn revealed he would not be bound by that process.
“My role and the role of our government will be to ensure that that referendum is held in a fair atmosphere and we will abide by the result of it,” he said during the programme, broadcast from Sheffield.
“I will adopt, if I am Prime Minister at the time, a neutral stance so I can credibly carry out the result of that to bring our communities and country together rather continuing endless debate about the EU and Brexit.” Audience members groaned as Mr Corbyn set out his position.
The Labour leader also confirmed that he may be willing to grant the powers to hold a second independence referendum as early as 2021.
“There are parliamentary election in Scotland in 2021, and obviously an expression [of Scottish opinion] will come from that,” Mr Corbyn said.
The Labour leader said he would not support a new referendum on Scottish independence in the “early years” of an administration.
He said: “In the early years of a Labour government we will not be supporting an independence referendum, instead we will be investing in Scotland.”
Pressed on what the term “early years” meant, the Labour leader said: “The early years, first two years, at least.”
Nicola Sturgeon followed the Labour leader, and cast doubt on whether Mr Corbyn would hold firm against a referendum in Scotland in 2020 if the SNP’s support was essential to forming a government.
She said: “Do you think he’s going to walk away from the chance to end austerity, to protect the NHS, stop Universal Credit, simply because he wants for a couple of years to prevent Scotland having the right to self-determination?
“I’m not sure he’s going to compromise the chance to have a Labour government for that issue.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “If Jeremy Corbyn wants the support of the SNP... I would ask him to respect the right of the Scottish people to choose their own future and I don’t think he’ll turn his back on ending austerity to block that right.”
The First Minister also rejected the idea that a ‘confirmatory’ referendum would be required if Scotland voted for independence, to ratify the terms of its departure from the UK.
A Conservative Party spokeswoman said: “Jeremy Corbyn has just confirmed that he has no plan for Brexit – he will not even say if he thinks we should leave or remain.
“All he offers is months and months of dither and delay followed by the chaos of another two referendums.”
And the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the debate showed that Labour’s stance on indyref2 “continues to fall apart”.
“It was clear tonight that under pressure Labour simply cannot defend preventing or delaying people making a choice over Scotland’s future,” Mr Blackford said.
“Whether and when to hold an independence referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland – not detached Westminster parties.”
While the questions faced by Ms Sturgeon mainly focused on independence, the leaders of the main UK-wide parties were given a tough examination by the Question Time audience in Sheffield.
Mr Corbyn was challenged over the sexism and anti-semitism faced by some Labour MPs, and his responses to it. One member of the audience raised an incident captured on video showing the Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth being forced to leave a public meeting by a heckler, who Mr Corbyn later went to speak to.
“I’m afraid for my daughters,” the man said, adding: “I don’t buy this nice old grandpa, I see that video and that tells me all I need to know.”
Mr Corbyn said that “nobody should suffer any abuse in public life or privately,” adding that “you don’t know what I said” to the heckler.
The Labour leader was also told his policies were “genuinely terrifying” by an audience member. “I don’t think it’s businesses which should be scared just, I think it’s everyone,” the man said. “I think freedom will completely erode if we let you have the keys to Number 10.”
Boris Johnson faced laughter in a second live TV appearance this week when he was asked if telling the truth was important to him, and refused to apologise when challenged over language used in newspaper columns which has been condemned as racist.
“I have written many millions of words in my life as a journalist and I have... genuinely never intended to cause hurt or pain to anybody and that is my intention,” Mr Johnson said.
The audience also laughed and groaned when the Prime Minister said MPs were “given every opportunity” to pass his Brexit Bill.
Mr Johnson was pressed on why a report into possible Russian interference in British democracy had not been released before the election.
Mr Johnson said there was “absolutely no evidence that I know of to show any interference in any British electoral event”.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was challenged on her record as a minister when he party was in coalition with the Tories. She also faced anger over the Lib Dems’ plans to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit if they form the next government.
Ms Swinson said: “We are being very straightforward as a party that we want to stop Brexit. You might agree with us, you might disagree with us.
“I don’t think you can accuse us of not being up front about wanting to stop Brexit... Not for one second do I think that means that you or anybody like you is stupid. I think it means we disagree.”