Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott’s political future hangs in the balance after Labour MPs were warned they will be expected to back the Government’s Brexit bill.
The party’s chief whip, Nick Brown, told a meeting of the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) that he favoured ordering MPs to support the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
Brown said that he as “a firm advocate of consistency” on whipping matters, a strong signal that he will advise Jeremy Corbyn to reimpose a three-line whip on the legislation that will trigger the two-year process of the UK quitting the EU.
His words came as several MPs lined up to insist that Abbott should be sacked or forced to quit like other Shadow Cabinet ministers if she voted against the Brexit bill this Wednesday.
Labour backbenchers Kevan Jones, Barry Sheerman, Emma Reynolds, Clive Betts, Clive Efford and Ian Austin all pressed the need for Abbott to be treated like other MPs. Jess Philips and Chris Bryant also raised the issue.
Abbott, who blamed a severe migraine for her failure to vote for the bill in the Commons last week, is under pressure from voters in her London constituency to oppose the legislation that will kick-start the Article 50 Brexit process.
If a three-line whip is imposed once more by the Shadow Cabinet at its meeting on Tuesday, she faces a stark choice between keeping her job in Corbyn’s top team and a backlash from her constituents.
Brown told the PLP that members of the Shadow Cabinet should be “bound by collective decisions that they themselves have made” and said that he would not support “favouritism” for anyone.
But HuffPost UK has learned that some Corbyn allies in the Shadow Cabinet have in recent days been lobbying for a free vote, to allow ministers who abstain on the bill to be spared any disciplinary action.
That would mean that both Abbott and Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis - who is also being urged by constituents in his pro-Remain seat in Norwich not to back the Government - could keep their jobs.
“It’s definitely a headache, pardon the pun, for Jeremy,” one Shadow Cabinet minister told HuffPost UK.
“We’ve already pissed off half the country by saying we back the Brexit bill. Why on earth would we now want to piss off the other half by changing our line?” another source at the PLP meeting said.
The Labour leader himself has stressed that Shadow Cabinet members should abide by the party policy they have agreed, although he said last weekend that he was “a very lenient person”.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has also suggested that frontbenchers in junior roles may be treated more leniently.
“We’ll see whether they keep their jobs, whether they stand down, or whether they get moved,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics show on Sunday. “We’re keeping that open.”
One MP pointed to a Tweet last week by Labour’s general elections campaigns coordinator Jon Trickett, when he declared that he was following the wishes of his constituents. “Will Diane do the same?” the MP said.
Abbott was ridiculed in the PLP meeting for drinking in a Westminster pub the night before a crunch vote on the Second Reading of the Brexit bill last week.
Backbencher Barry Sheerman asked if “more thought can be given to the health and wellbeing of Members, especially the effects of imbibing red wine”.
Two Labour backbenchers currently being treated for cancer managed to turn up to back the party line on the Government. A total of 47 MPs rebelled against the party line.
One MP at the PLP asked if Abbott had been ‘slipped’ or excused from the vote for illness and was told ‘No’. A senior frontbencher suggested afterwards that she had made her position ‘untenable’ if that was the case.
In a separate discussion about the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, Lewis came under attack for suggesting that Labour was “hanging on by its fingernails” in the seat.
Lewis was filmed at a meeting saying: “There are swathes of this country, like in Stoke, where we are hanging on by the fingernails to keep UKIP at bay.
“And if Ukip make a breakthrough in Stoke and if they make a breakthrough in parts of the North there will be a rout.”
But Stoke-on-Trent North MP Ruth Smeeth - who is helping lead the by-election campaign - hit out at her colleague. In a barbed reference to Lewis, she said the Shadow Cabinet should not “talk down” Labour in Stoke.
A party spokesman said afterwards that there had been “a general expression that unity and clarity from the party helps in by elections”.
Labour campaigners believe that the party’s message on the NHS was “cutting through” in the Copeland by-election. In Stoke, where UKIP leader Paul Nuttall is standing, there was also a feeling that “we are beginning to get traction”, the spokesman said.