John McDonnell has said a second Brexit referendum “might be an option we seize upon”, admitting for the first time that remain should be on the ballot paper and insisting that “no deal” should not.
The shadow chancellor said he would vote to remain in any new referendum and that offering the chance to vote on no deal would carry too high a risk.
The comments, made at a Guardian Live event, mark a shift in thinking from McDonnell, who had previously argued that the option to remain should not be on the ballot paper for any fresh referendum on the Brexit deal.
Those comments sparked concern at the Labour’s conference in September, where delegates voted overwhelmingly to commit the party to seeking a new referendum if it could not force a general election.
On Tuesday night, McDonnell said he would vote remain in a new referendum, in contrast with Jeremy Corbyn, who had refused to commit which way he would vote when asked on Sky News last week.
“We can’t have no deal on the ballot paper,” McDonnell said. “There’s an overwhelming majority in parliament against that happening, because of the damage.”
McDonnell said he had recently met leading figures from the People’s Vote campaign, including Alastair Campbell and Ed Miliband’s former adviser Tom Baldwin.
The shadow chancellor said he expected May to lose the first vote, and present a tweaked deal that he predicted would fail as well.
“All through that, we will be calling for a general election,” he said. “Whether and when we put a vote of no confidence down will be a tactical decision. We’ll want a maximum effect.”
He said the party had been meeting to discuss coordination with the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas of the Greens. “If we can’t get a general election, people’s vote is on the table and that might be an option we seize upon,” he said.
Before that, the party would also offer their own versions of a deal, he said. “We’ll have to go through that sequence to show we’re doing everything we can,” he said.
Corbyn’s team is planning for a range of possible scenarios as the Labour leader prepares to ramp up efforts to explain his alternative plan to the public in the coming days. He is expected to confront the prime minister in a head-to-head television debate.
The Labour leadership is determined to reject the idea gaining ground at Westminster of a Norway-plus deal. The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Tuesday she hoped a majority could coalesce around the proposal, which is being promoted by the Conservative backbencher Nick Boles.
However, senior Labour sources insisted they regarded it as an unacceptable abrogation of sovereignty that would fail to honour the referendum result, won by the Vote Leave campaign with the slogan “take back control” – though some shadow cabinet members will be keener to explore it.
The party intends to hold out for its own plan, involving a permanent customs union and a close relationship with the single market that falls short of full membership. Despite McDonnell’s warm words, Labour is expected to resist demands for a second referendum unless all other options have been exhausted.