POLITICS
22/05/2018 18:23 BST | Updated 22/05/2018 18:25 BST

John Prescott Blasts Chuka Umunna For Fostering Labour ‘Division’ Over Brexit

Row comes as MPs again push party to back EEA membership

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John Prescott has launched a furious attack on Labour MP Chuka Umunna for trying to push Labour into backing a Norway-style Brexit.

The former Deputy Prime Minister lashed out at Umunna for fostering “division” within the party, undermining Jeremy Corbyn and misleading peers into voting for membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Prescott warned MPs and peers not to “go down that road” of trying to split the party over Europe.

His outburst came at a two-hour meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night as pro-Remain MPs urged Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer to harden Labour’s opposition to the Government.

Starmer told MPs that the party needed “a strong single market proposition” to appeal to voters worried about the damage to jobs and growth that would be caused by a Tory ‘hard Brexit’.

Starmer accepted that there were “strong views” within the PLP but called on colleagues to show “unity and respect” for each other ahead of a series of crunch votes when the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons.

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Former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna

Prescott underlined the point with a fierce strong attack on those who were trying to shift Corbyn’s policy.

He brandished a print-out of an email sent by Umunna on behalf of the anti-Brexit ‘Open Britain’ campaign group, which urges the public to email their MP to demand “why they will or will not be voting for the EEA”.

Prescott said that the email sought to divide the party rather than unite it against the Tories.

Umunna was among several MPs who visited the Lords earlier this month, when 83 Labour peers rebelled against the party whip to back an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that committed the Government to negotiating EEA membership.

The former DPM suggested Umunna had told peers the amendment was similar to one tabled by Heidi Alexander, which had won official party backing but was defeated.

The Commons amendment called only for Parliament to get a vote on the EEA, while the Lords amendment insisted that EEA membership should be “a negotiating objective”.

Prescott said that the two amendments were “clearly” not the same, despite the fact that “a group of people came to the Lords from the Commons to tell us differently”.

He was backed up by Labour’s leader in the Lords Angela Smith.

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The Open Britain email that upset Prescott

Umunna was present for the dressing down but couldn’t stay to give a response as he had a prior engagement.

Allies of the Labour MP point out that the Open Britain email made a “very reasonable suggestion” that voters who want to stay in the single market should be able to “influence” their MP on the issue.

And although Umunna and other Remainer MPs did stand at the bar of the Lords for the key vote earlier this month, Remainer peers say they were not misled into rebelling against their party.

Relations between Prescott and Umunna have been strained since Prescott once joked about colleague’s  surname.

At a 2014 party conference event, he dubbed him ‘Chumbawamba’, a reference to the pop group who once soaked the ex-DPM with water at the Brit Awards.

Sources say that Labour’s main priority in coming weeks is to repeat the non-EEA Lords defeats, including securing a ‘meaningful’ vote on Theresa May’s final Brexit deal later this year.

In the PLP meeting, Hilary Benn, Mary Creagh, Stephen Kinnock – all of whom represent seats that had a majority of ‘Leave’ voters in the EU referendum – pressed Starmer to go for the EEA option.

Creagh pointed out that it was only after the resignations of several frontbenchers that the party had moved towards accepting membership of the single market and customs union during a ‘transition’ period.

She said she hoped similar resignations weren’t necessary for the party to shift towards supporting permanent membership of the EEA.

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Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer

“Mary’s point was that we had to constantly rebel on it for them to move position,” one source said. 

MPs Bridget Phillipson and Anna Turley both warned that Leave voters in their North East constituencies had not voted to lose their jobs in a few years’ time but could do so if the UK quit the EEA.

Labour sources have suggested the party will continue its whip to order MPs to abstain on the EEA amendment when it returns to the Commons.

Starmer has told MPs he wants a new single market deal that while being outside the EEA does not water down EU standards or regulations.  Labour strategists believe Brussels can “live with” such a plan. 

One Remain-backing MP told HuffPost that they believed the party would eventually back EEA membership if the leadership could be persuaded there were enough Tory rebels to form an alliance on the issue.