The country needs a fresh EU referendum rather than a general election to break the Brexit deadlock, Tom Watson has said.
The Labour deputy leader said that the result of the 2016 referendum is no longer valid, claiming that information had emerged since the poll that proved there was “no such thing as a good Brexit deal”.
And he added that while a “Brexit election” now seems inevitable, it is not desirable, arguing that such a campaign would see issues such as the NHS and crime drowned out by “the braying bullies of the Tory leadership” who will shout “Brexit do or die”.
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The West Bromwich East MP's position puts him at odds with Jeremy Corbyn, who wants a general election as soon as a no-deal Brexit has been ruled out.
The Labour leader has pledged to offer a second referendum with a Leave option only once he is in power.
Mr Watson's speech came as Scotland’s highest civil court ruled Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament is unlawful.
A “major showdown” at the UK’s Supreme Court has been predicted with the UK Government expected to appeal the ruling.
In a speech at Somerset House, hosted by the Creative Industries Federation, Mr Watson took aim at Boris Johnson, saying the scale of the damage he is threatening the country with is “worse than Thatcher”.
He said: “Boris Johnson has already conceded that the Brexit crisis can only be solved by the British people.
“But the only way to break the Brexit deadlock once and for all is a public vote in a referendum. A general election might well fail to solve this Brexit chaos.”
Explaining his call for a second referendum, he said: “Very difficult though it was, I and many others respected the result of the 2016 referendum for a long time.
“But there eventually comes a point – and we are very far past it now, well into the fourth year since the referendum – when circumstances are so changed, when so much new information has emerged that we didn’t have in 2016, when so many people feel differently to how they felt then, that you have to say, no, that years-old plebiscite is no longer a valid basis on which to take such a momentous decision about the future of the United Kingdom.”
'What do they have to fear?'
He also accused the Prime Minister of “trying to trash” Britain’s democratic institutions.
Laying down a challenge to Mr Johnson, Mr Watson said: “The only proper way to proceed in such circumstances is to consult the people again. Why are Boris Johnson’s Tory faction so terrified of that?
"If there is still a majority for Brexit, what do they have to fear? If there isn’t any more, how can it then be democratic to leave, just because there used to be a majority for it more than three years ago, when so many things were so different?”
Mr Watson believes that if an election is called, Labour’s position should be clear: “We must unambiguously and unequivocally back remain,” he said, adding that this is “not for electoral or tactical reasons, but because it is the right thing to do for the country at this time of greatest crisis since the second world war”.
Mr Watson said the “overwhelming majority” of Labour Party members, MPs and trade unions believe Britain is better off staying in the EU.
He insists it is not too late for Labour to win back Remain voters. “My experience on the doorstep tells me most of those who’ve deserted us over our Brexit policy did so with deep regret and would greatly prefer to come back; they just want us to take an unequivocal position that whatever happens we’ll fight to remain, and to sound like we mean it.
“It would be easy to be four hundred thousand voices sounding like we mean it, because we do. And if we did it we could win, whereas if we don’t I fear we won’t.”
Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly said Mr Watson's comments showed Labour was determined to cancel the 2016 referendum result.
"This latest trick would mean delaying Brexit again for up to a year, handing over £250 million a week to Brussels for no purpose. Labour are running scared of an election and only offer more dither and pointless delay," he said.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer used a speech to the TUC in Brighton to insist that Labour would not be silenced in its bid to prevent a no-deal Brexit by the Prime Minister's decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks.
"Johnson now thinks that, by shutting down Parliament, he will shut us up. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
"Just as we worked throughout the summer to pass a law preventing no-deal, so we will work each and every day we are shut down to enforce that law."