Labour MPs planning to rebel against Jeremy Corbyn and vote against the triggering of Article 50 have been told by the party’s Brexit spokesman they must respect the outcome of the referendum despite the “lies” told by the Leave campaign.
Speaking at the start of the two day Commons debate on the EU (Notification on Withdrawal) Bill that will allow Theresa May to take the UK out of the EU, Keir Starmer gravely acknowledged the upcoming vote had split Labour down the middle.
“We have before us short Bill and a relatively simple Bill. But for the Labour Party this is very difficult Bill,” he said to jeers and laughter from the Tory benches. “We are fiercely internationalist party. We are pro-European party.”
With Jeremy Corbyn sitting by his side, Stamer told his party: “But we failed to persuade. We lost the referendum. Yes the result was close. Yes there were lies and half-truths, none worse than the promise of £350m a week for the NHS. Yes, technically the referendum is not legally binding. But the result was not technical. It was deeply political. And politically the notion the referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform parliament holds no water.
“When I was imploring people up and down the country to vote in the referendum and vote to remain, I told them their vote really mattered. That a decision was going not be made. I was not inviting them to express a view.”
Corbyn has been struggling to contain a revolt by some Labour MPs - the majority of whom voted against Brexit – over his decision to impose a three-line whip ordering them to vote for the Bill at second reading. Shadow ministers Jo Stevens and Tulip Siddiq quit in protest, and other frontbenchers - particularly those in constituencies which voted for Remain - have said they will oppose the Bill, even if it costs them their jobs.
Conservative Brexit secretary David Davis told MPs today the vote came down to whether MPs would “trust the people” or not.
“It is not a bill about whether or not the UK should leave the EU, or how it should do so. It is simply about implementing a decision already made, a point of no return already passed. We asked the people of the UK if they wanted to leave the EU; they decided they did,” he told the Commons.
Starmer said Labour should be, above all, a party of “democrats” and not try to block the Brexit vote as some of his colleagues would like to do.
“Had the outcome be to remain, we would have expected the result to be honoured, and that cuts both ways. A decision was made on 23 June to leave the EU. Two-thirds of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave. One third represent constituencies that voted to remain. This is obviously a difficult decision. I wish the result had gone the other way. I campaigned passionately for that. But as democrats, our party has to accept the result. It follows that the prime minister should not be blocked form starting the Article 50 negotiations.”
Labour shadow Brexit minister Matthew Pennycook also warned today that Labour risked getting hammered in a snap general election if it voted down the Brexit Bill.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, he said that voting against triggering the formal Article 50 process would force May into an election that would be fought on Europe and would lead to an even bigger government majority for the Tories.
With Labour having said they will not seek to block the triggering of Article 50 - marking the start of the two-year Brexit process - the Bill is expected to clear its first parliamentary hurdle relatively easily.
It will then return to the Commons next week for the committee stage - when the real parliamentary battle is expected to take place as opposition parties attempt to push through a series of amendments.
The government has kept the Bill to just two tightly-drawn clauses in the an attempt to limit the scope for amendments.
Ministers were forced to table legislation after the Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that the government must obtain the approval of Parliament before it could begin negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.