Social unrest on the streets of Britain could be a price worth paying to prevent the “nightmare scenario” of a no-deal Brexit, Andy Burnham has said.
The Greater Manchester Mayor said he would support a second referendum on Brexit as a last resort to prevent the UK crashing out of the European Union without an agreement, even though it would risk deepening divisions and further erode trust in politicians.
Mr Burnham also suggested that “alt-right” activists could be pushing the no-deal agenda in order to exploit splits in British society.
In a major speech in Westminster, the Labour former Cabinet minister argued that if Parliament was heading towards a no-deal Brexit then the European Union should be asked to postpone the March 2019 deadline for the UK’s departure in order to allow further negotiations.
If that fails and a deal acceptable to Parliament cannot be agreed between the UK and Brussels, then a second referendum should be held despite the damage that would cause.
“I have to think seriously about what a second vote would mean on the streets of Greater Manchester,” he said.
“If we thought the first was bad, the second would be a whole lot worse. It won’t heal divisions but widen them, it would be angrier, create social unrest and open up a massive opportunity for the populist far right in a way we are seeing elsewhere in Europe and the USA.”
He said it was possible the alt-right were driving the agenda to “set up a clash in our communities from which they think they can profit”.
Mr Burnham stressed he was not supporting the People’s Vote campaign for a referendum on the outcome of Brexit talks in any event, but would back a plebiscite only as a last resort if the alternative was leaving without a deal.
“A price would undoubtedly be paid in terms of social cohesion but it would be a necessary one to avoid the damage to people’s jobs, families and lives,” he said.
The mayor acknowledged that a second vote “would cause real division on our streets, but there is only one thing worse than that and that is crashing out of the EU without a deal”.
“I think a second vote would further erode trust in Parliament and politicians and there is always a price that comes with that, but in the end that price is worth paying to stop the catastrophic damage to jobs that would come with a no-deal Brexit.”
Mr Burnham, who is campaigning for extra powers to be given to the devolved regions and cities, said the 2016 Brexit referendum result was as much an “instruction for Westminster to review its relationship with the rest of England” as a message to Brussels.
“If the phrase ‘take back control’ is to mean anything, it must mean substantial devolution of power and resources out of Westminster to all of the English regions,” he said.
A Department for Exiting the European Union spokesman said: “As a result of the significant progress made in negotiations, we remain confident we will agree a mutually advantageous deal with the EU.”