Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench team are ready to risk the sack by joining up to 60 Labour MPs in a crunch Commons vote for a softer Brexit, HuffPost has learned.
Amid fresh splits in the party, several shadow ministers are poised to join a major rebellion on a Lords amendment that backs UK membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), the so-called ‘Norway option’ that keeps British access to EU trade.
More than 80 Labour peers – including former leader Neil Kinnock - defied the party whip last month to support the EEA plan along with several Tory pro-Remainers.
As the Commons gears up for key votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill next week, backers of the cross-party amendment have mobilised support in recent days despite the Shadow Cabinet approving fresh plans to soften Brexit.
HuffPost has been told that members of Corbyn’s shadow team, including at least one whip, are considering their position as they plan to vote with rebels including Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock and Chris Leslie.
Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson this week backed EEA membership.
Corbyn faces a real dilemma over how to handle the rebellion, not least as three whips – MPs responsible for party discipline – voted last year against triggering Brexit’s Article 50 and still didn’t get the sack.
Some frontbenchers will make up their minds on the day of the vote next Tuesday or Wednesday, with some hoping they won’t have to resign or be fired if the Labour leadership wants to avoid further division.
Those with strong pro-Remain votes in their constituencies in the 2016 EU referendum believe they have a duty to use the ‘golden opportunity’ to defeat the Government next week.
Backers of the EEA plan argue that there is very strong support among party members for the closest ties to the EU.
They also point to a fresh analysis this week by experts Ian Warren and Kevin Cunningham showing that even in strong Leave-voting constituencies, Labour MPs won more votes from Remain voters than those who wanted to quit the EU.
In marginal seats, Labour won more than twice as many Remain votes as Leave votes in the 2017 election.
The Shadow Cabinet agreed this week to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the EEA amendment, which has the backing of leading Tory rebel MPs. But it remains unclear what reprisals there will be, if any. Some around Corbyn want to maintain party unity by refusing to sack rebels.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has tried to unify the party’s different wings this week after announcing a tweak in policy to get ‘common standards’, ‘shared institutions’ and ‘no new impediments to trade’ after Brexit.
A series of private meetings convened by Starmer this week have laid bare the divisions with the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), with several MPs in ‘Leave’ areas of the country vowing to vote against the EEA plan because it would mean continued free movement of migrants from the EU.
In one heated meeting, MPs Caroline Flint, Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell all warned their pro-EEA colleagues that immigration remained a key concern in their seats. “Why are we not uniting to fight the Tories on Brexit?” one asked.
“There’s real disappointment at red-on-red stuff and at the aggressive tactics used by Umunna and Leslie,” one source said.
But in a blog for HuffPost, shadow defence minister Wayne David – a former MEP whose Welsh constituency voted to Leave the EU in 2016 – warns that the EEA model is unacceptable to many voters.
“Crucially, Norway accepts free movement of people. This is important because hostility to free movement was an important issue in the referendum campaign. Moreover, Norway has no meaningful influence over the Single Market’s laws and regulations which it adheres to,” David said.
“Such a model surely would be very difficult for Britain to accept. Staying in the Single Market whilst being outside of the EU would mean that Britain would be at the centre of a huge democratic deficit.”
Starmer believes that the number of Labour opponents to the EEA – more than 50 – would be more than enough to outweigh any Tories who decide to back the amendment and therefor wants to focus efforts on the customs union and a ‘meaningful vote’.
His allies believe some Conservatives rebels, many of whom aren’t trusted by Corbyn’s team to deliver, would back away if Labour dramatically changed tack and ordered its MPs to vote for the Norway-style plan.
One Labour source said that they would be ‘surprised’ if any of the whips team decided to rebel, although it’s unclear what sanction would apply.