LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn would adopt a “neutral stance” during a second Brexit referendum following a Labour win in the U.K. general election.
Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time leaders’ special on Friday, the Labour leader, who currently trails Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the polls, said he would focus on delivering the result of a second vote on Brexit and bringing the country together if he wins the December 12 election.
The move risks alienating both Labour supporters — including several in the shadow cabinet — who back Remain and significant numbers of voters in Labour heartland who voted to Leave the European Union in 2016.
Corbyn was the first of four party leaders to face 30 minutes of questioning from a TV audience in Sheffield on Friday night. He was followed by Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“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,” Corbyn said. “And I will adopt, as prime minister, if I am at the time, a neutral stance so that I can credibly carry out the results of that to bring communities and country together rather than continuing an endless debate about the EU and Brexit.”
Corbyn had previously refused to say whether he would campaign for either Remain or Leave in a second ballot.
Labour’s policy on Brexit is to negotiate a “credible” withdrawal agreement within three months of a Labour government, which would be put to a referendum within six months.
Johnson, who took the stage last, hit back, saying Corbyn’s position on Brexit has “mutated.”
The prime minister was subject to tough grilling on his decision to postpone the publication of a House of Commons committee report into alleged Russian meddling in British elections. Johnson dismissed the complaints of a member of the audience, saying he had seen “no evidence” of Russian interference in U.K politics.
“There is absolutely no evidence that I know of to show any interference in any British electoral event. And the reason I won’t [publish the report] is I see no reason … to interfere with the normal timetable … just because an election is going on,” he said.
The prime minister also dismissed claims he was deliberately holding back the report, saying: “This is complete Bermuda Triangle stuff. As is the suggestion that the referendum … was somehow false, not fair, wrong and should now be cancelled.”
Johnson also refused to apologize for comments he made in articles written for the Daily Telegraph, including one in which he compared veiled Muslim women to letterboxes.
“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. If you go through all my articles with a fine-tooth comb and take out individual phrases there is no doubt that you can find things that can be made to seem offensive and of course I understand that,” Johnson said.
During his time on stage, Corbyn also insisted that a Labour government would not support a new referendum on Scottish independence in the “early years” after taking power. Pressed on what “early years” meant, the Labour leader said: “The early years, first two years, at least.”
Scottish First Minister Sturgeon cast doubt on Corbyn’s stance and said she did not envisage forming a coalition government with Labour if the election results in a hung parliament. Instead, the Scottish National Party leader said she would favor a “less formal arrangement.”
“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,” Sturgeon said.
Swinson, who faced questions on the Liberal Democrats’ role in increasing tuition fees and implementing austerity during the coalition government, was accused of treating voters as if they were “stupid” by proposing canceling Brexit without a second referendum. She replied that the Lib Dems have always been “upfront” about wanting to stop Brexit.