A number of Labour frontbenchers say they would consider their positions if leader backed idea
Jeremy Corbyn could face up to a dozen resignations from the Labour frontbench if the party backs a second referendum as a way out of the Brexit crisis.
A string of junior shadow ministers have told the Guardian they are strongly opposed to the idea of a second referendum, which they fear would expose Labour to a vicious backlash in leave-voting constituencies.
The development follows another tense day of brinkmanship in Westminster between Theresa May and the Labour leader as they seek a way out of the crisis that has engulfed both major parties.
Corbyn refused to enter talks with Theresa May on Thursday until she ruled out the idea of a no-deal departure, and demanded that his party’s MPs refuse similar invitations. Later May wrote to Corbyn telling him that ruling out no-deal was “an impossible condition” and calling on him to join cross-party discussions.
With no sign of the impasse being broken, pressure is growing on Labour to consider a so-called people’s vote as the UK prepares to leave the EU on 29 March.
With Corbyn’s hopes of a general election fading with the prime minister’s narrow victory in the no-confidence vote, some Labour supporters are raising pressure on Corbyn to support a second referendum.
A snap poll conducted after the crushing defeat of May’s Brexit plan has found a 12-point lead for remaining in the EU – the largest margin since the 2016 vote.
But the Guardian has contacted several senior shadow ministers from constituencies that voted to leave the EU who say they would consider their positions if Corbyn conceded to pressure to back a second referendum.
One said: “I would be in a really difficult position if we backed a second referendum. I would have little choice but to stand down if I was to have any hope of retaining my seat and representing my constituents.”
Another said they had made their views clear to Corbyn’s office and the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.
“I would feel deeply uncomfortable about going into a people’s vote at this stage. Given all the commitments that we made in the general election, we have to carry them out. This concept of blocking Brexit is wrong and would break a link with millions of our traditional voters who expect us to keep our word,” the shadow minister said.
Anti-Brexit campaign group Labour for a People’s Vote published a list of 71 Labour MPs who support its cause on Wednesday, and claimed many more were privately supportive.
But backbench MPs who have been canvassing opinion claim that number is matched by vehement opponents of a referendum, some of whom would be prepared to break the whip rather than support it.
Several shadow cabinet ministers, including the Labour chair, Ian Lavery, and the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, are also sceptical, believing the party’s first priority must be to keep up the pressure for a general election.
Lavery made a passionate intervention against a new referendum at last week’s shadow cabinet meeting. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite trade union, has also said it would be a “betrayal” to seek to reverse the 2016 result.
Gloria De Piero, the shadow justice minister, told the Guardian she was not in favour of a second referendum. “I stood on a manifesto that promised to respect the referendum result,” she said.
Other shadow cabinet ministers, including the deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, and the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, are more sympathetic towards a second referendum.
Labour strategists have not ruled out a free vote on a second referendum, believing that whipping MPs either to support or oppose a referendum would open a deep rift.
Lucy Powell, the MP for Manchester Central, said that with no agreed Brexit deal in place, it was unclear what options would be offered on a second referendum – and referendums were the wrong way to resolve the complex situation.
“I think they’re terrible ways to make rational decisions,” she said. “And there’s a swathe of the public who would never forgive us.”
At a meeting in Hastings, East Sussex, Corbyn remained uncommitted on the idea of a second referendum, saying again that it remained one of several options if an election did not happen.
Explaining why he was the only opposition leader not to meet May for one-to-one talks, Corbyn dismissed the cross-party discussions as a “stunt”, adding that May appeared unable to grasp the fact that her withdrawal agreement was now “dead”.
“She seems to be prepared to send the country hurtling towards a cliff-edge,” he said.
But Labour’s former prime minister Tony Blair said Corbyn was wrong to refuse to meet May.
“If, in a moment of national crisis, the prime minister asks the leader of the opposition to come and talk, of course he should,” Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Another former Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, called for the Brexit deadline to be extended by a year, as he said the country was now “more divided” than at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax.
MPs should force the government to extend article 50 and then give the public the final say on a renegotiated Brexit deal, he said.
Speaking in Edinburgh on Thursday evening, Brown condemned the “paralysed and immobilised” parliament in Westminster and said there was rising anger from the public who wanted to be involved in the decision-making process.
In a further development, a poll conducted by YouGov of more than 1,000 voters on Wednesday found 56% would now vote to stay in the EU, against 44% who want to leave.
Exactly the same proportion of voters said they wanted a second EU referendum – three points higher than recorded in a similar poll before Christmas. Backing for a so-called people’s vote among Labour supporters stood at 78%.
The remain lead was extended further when respondents were asked to compare it to May’s withdrawal agreement or the option of leaving the EU without a deal.
Against the prime minister’s deal, remain led by 65% to 35%, while against no-deal was 59% to 41% in favour of staying in the EU.