Sir Keir Starmer risks cleaving open a deep party rift by throwing Labour support behind a Brexit deal if Boris Johnson’s last-minute negotiations succeed in the coming days.
Starmer reportedly hopes to send a signal to ‘red wall’ voters – who abandoned the party in favour of the Conservatives at the last election – by imposing a three-line whip in support of a deal, the Guardian reported.
The leader’s office has rejected the idea of giving MPs a free vote or abstaining, fearing it would hint that Labour has not learned the lessons of December’s general election drubbing.
‘Vote for it’
Brexit negotiations are in their final days, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier jetting in for face-to-face talks with his British counterparts in London over the weekend.
If successful, Johnson is expected to bring the deal to parliament before Christmas – giving Labour an unlikely chance to table amendments.
Starmer reportedly believes that the consequences of a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a pandemic are too drastic for Labour to stand on the sidelines.
“If you want something to happen in parliament, the best way to go about it is to vote for it,” said one shadow cabinet member told the Guardian.
But some MPs fear that Labour is too focussed on relitigating last year’s Brexit battles, by targeting all their messaging at disgruntled northern voters.
There is fear that supporting Johnson will rob the opposition of its ability to hold the government to account for Brexit’s economic consequences, and handing Nicola Sturgeon an easy win by letting her lump the “Westminster parties” together on the issue.
Members of the Love Socialism, Hate Brexit campaign group of MPs also voiced concern that supporting a deal now will tie Labour’s hand on opposing future trade deals that abandon key rights and regulations.
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis, who resigned from the Labour frontbench rather than vote for Article 50, said: “It’s likely to be a framework deal, which means there will be massive holes in it. That’s in effect a near blank cheque, and it potentially ties Labour’s hands for 10-15 years.
“It’s not just about our relationship with Europe, it’s about regulatory realignment and whether we end up with a neoliberal US-type economy, on workers’ rights, on the environment, on food standards. For people like me, it’s a point of principle.”
‘It’s my job’
Talks have been deadlocked for months over the issues of fishing rights, the governance of any deal, and the “level playing field” conditions aimed at preventing unfair competition by cutting standards or increasing state subsidies.
Lord Frost, the government’s chief negotiator, called on Brussels on Friday to respect UK sovereignty. Writing on Twitter on Friday, he said that while it was “late” to reach a deal an agreement was still “possible”.
“Some people are asking me why we are still talking. My answer is that it’s my job to do my utmost to see if the conditions for a deal exist. It is late, but a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn’t,” he said.
“But for a deal to be possible it must fully respect UK sovereignty. That is not just a word – it has practical consequences. That includes: controlling our borders; deciding ourselves on a robust and principled subsidy control system; and controlling our fishing waters.
“We look to reach an agreement on this basis, allowing the new beginning to our relationship with the EU which, for our part, we have always wanted. We will continue to work hard to get it – because an agreement on any other basis is not possible.”