Labour’s shadow Brexit minister has warned that his party risks getting hammered in a snap general election if it votes down a bill to withdraw the UK from the EU.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, Matthew Pennycook said that voting against triggering the formal Article 50 process would force Theresa May into an election that would be fought on Europe and would lead to an even bigger Government majority for the Tories.
He also suggested that defying the EU referendum result would also risk “social division”, fuel the rise of the far-right and further alienate many voters.
Pennycook’s warning came as MPs prepared to debate for the first time the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which starts the formal two-year process of exit.
Labour’s current poll ratings, with the Tories up to 14 points ahead, suggest it could lose of dozens of Westminster seats if a general election were held this spring.
Pennycook warned that the party’s squeeze by the Conservatives and UKIP in its key seats in many areas would lead to a loss that would make a ‘hard Brexit’ more likely, not less.
“It is also worth considering what would happen if the Bill were voted down,” he wrote.
“Far from securing our place in the EU or chastening the hardline Brexiteers, it would almost certainly trigger a snap general election fought solely on the issue of Brexit that in all likelihood would return a Conservative Government with an increased majority to enact any form of departure they wish - an outcome I think the present Commons make-up gives us a reasonable chance of avoiding.”
Several shadow ministers are set to defy their party’s three-line whip ordering them to vote for the Article 50 bill, a move that will lead to them swiftly resigning or being fired.
A clutch of backbench Labour MPs told the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night that they intended to vote against the Government legislation.
Pennycook, whose Greenwich and Woolwich constituency voted by two-to-one to Remain in the EU, knows that he could lose his own seat for refusing to block the start of the Article 50 process.
But he added that even if the parliamentary arithmetic made defeating the Bill a realistic possibility, he was “not convinced it would be the right course of action”.
“To seek to nullify the referendum result by parliamentary means risks, in my view, creating further social division, fuelling the rise of the far-right, adding to the alienation already felt by a significant section of the electorate and perhaps even sparking civil unrest in some parts of the country.”
The Shadow Brexit minister, who has the full backing of Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, said that Labour would not give the Government a “blank cheque” and its amendments insist on a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal that Theresa May agrees with the rest of the EU.
Pennycook acknowledged that in an age of online democracy, a growing number of constituents expect their views not only to be respected and listened to but also acted upon.
“And yet, as unfashionable as it may be, MPs are still representatives, not delegates,” he wrote.
“It is our duty to exercise our judgement on behalf of our constituents and, on that basis, to vote for what we believe to be the right decision in any given situation - even when that decision risks condemnation or being at odds with significant numbers of those we represent.
“Rather than seeking to obstruct the EU exit process in its entirety, it is the job of the Opposition to robustly scrutinise and challenge the Government throughout the negotiation process.
“That means fighting for the maintenance of barrier-free access to the single market, for all the rights - workers, environmental and human - we currently enjoy, for a close and collaborative relationship with our European partners, and against the misguided prospect of turning Britain into a deregulated offshore tax haven.”
Former Shadow Cabinet minister Lisa Nandy also added her voice to those calling for Labour not to vote down Article 50.
In a New Statesman blog, she wrote: “For many people the referendum was the last line of defence for the things that matter in their lives and they were determined we would listen. They weren’t wrong.
“The outcome has shaken Westminster and Whitehall to its core. The mantra of the referendum was “you aren’t listening”. To reject Article 50 now would send the clearest possible signal that we still aren’t.”