The line was ad-libbed, apparently. “…and nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.” As anti-Brexit statements go, in the abstract at least, it is comically tame. Yet given the fact that we’ve had a couple of years of Corbyn saying things along the lines of “I hate the capitalist EU and can’t wait to escape”, only to be followed by calls from the Left to bewail Jezza “being on the fence” in regards to Brexit, it was pretty significant. Starmer seemed surprised by the extended standing ovation he received in the auditorium.
It has all kicked off since. The leaders’ office is trying to brief this out as Starmer on leadership manoeuvres. This could actually backfire on Corbyn, at least thinking long term, just as his plans to try and sideline Tom Watson with a second deputy crashed and burned at conference. Corbyn’s handle on the party is pretty tight but it does have one real weakness: his Euroscepticism. The Labour membership is unbelievably pro-Remain. Polls put it at 85, 90 percent of the membership wanting to Remain; that feels about right on the ground at conference. What Starmer’s ad-lib really does is put Corbyn further on the spot on the Brexit issue. Just when he thought he’d escaped with a fudge.
At present, the membership still seems to be going along with the idea that Corbyn is playing “the long game” on Brexit, and that at some point he’ll pull some move out his hat that magically keeps us in the EU. If Starmer took over as Labour leader and marched them in the direction of stopping Brexit, that could make things interesting. But coming back to the “long game” again: I think that even if Corbyn lets down the membership on Brexit, it would still take years for that anger to grow into something that turned itself against the present leadership of the Labour Party. There are too many semi-plausible excuses to allow people to hang onto their Jezza worship: what could Labour do while not being in government, being the one most used at present.
In conclusion, I don’t think this will have any immediate effect on either Labour or their fudged Brexit position. But I really think we could be heading for some sort of crisis in British politics – which means that things could change pretty quickly. It’s really up to the Labour membership, who way more power when it comes to Brexit than they allow themselves to admit.