Jeremy Corbyn supporters have launched an eleventh-hour bid to prevent the Labour conference from toughening the party’s line against Brexit.
In what appeared to be an attempt to avoid embarrassment to the Labour leader, the leftwing grassroots movement Momentum has asked its members not to include the issue in a list of motions at the gathering in Brighton.
Pro-EU Labour members swiftly accused the group of a ‘fix’ that ran counter to Corbyn’s own demands to allow the rank and file to determine the party’s direction.
In an email to supporters, seen by HuffPost UK, Momentum’s leadership has set out the four topics it wants to vote on - and none of them includes the EU. Housing, Social Care, the NHS and Rail are its new priorities for a ballot on Sunday.
The row over Brexit had been set to dominate the conference, with leftwing unions like the TSSA uniting with moderates and Momentum members to demand a more pro-EU policy.
A group of Labour MPs published a letter urging Corbyn to commit to permanent membership of the single market and customs union - and take advantage of Theresa May’s decision to delay ‘real Brexit’ until 2021.
Local Labour parties and members across the country have also been backing motions to change party policy to commit to continuing EU migration by ‘maintaining and extending’ the principle of ‘freedom of movement’.
But if Momentum gets its way in the ‘priorities ballot’ for members on Sunday - which decides which motions are picked for votes - the issue could be killed off.
Brexit is due to be debated on Monday, but without a vote the debate will have no bite, backers of the motions claim.
Momentum had been expected to include Brexit in its list of topics for vote, but a late change in the trade union priorities - including Grenfell instead of the rail industry - led the group to pick up the transport issue.
In its email to supporters, Momentum said Brexit is “already set to be debated on the Monday morning Conference session”.
“Momentum recommends voting for the following four subjects as they are crucial issues that the public care about, and it is vital Labour sets out a genuinely progressive vision on them in order to win the next election: Housing Social Care The NHS Rail,” it said.
“Remember, in the Priorities Ballot, one delegate votes on behalf of the entire CLP. Delegates should ensure that the person voting does so in line with the wishes of the entire delegation and the CLP membership. Voting happens between 10am until 3.30pm in the Ballot Area in the Brighton Centre.”
Richard Angell, director of the centrist pressure group Progress, said: “It is shameful tactics by the Momentum leadership to try and stop members democratically discuss Brexit let alone commit the party to staying in the Single Market permanenty and debating the important principles of freedom of movement.
“Most Momentum activists are desperate to stop a hard Brexit, but the secret Bennite Brexiteers want to keep Labour’s position as vague as possible for as long as possible – also know as a Tory-lite Brexit position.
“This is clearly Momentum using a ’stitch and fix to avoid Jeremy Corbyn’s blushes”.
A Momentum spokesman told HuffPost UK: “Brexit is already set to be debated at conference on Monday and housing, the NHS, social care and our railways are crucially important issues for the country which deserve to be discussed at Labour Party conference.
“So for that reason we are supporting them in the priorities ballot. Clearly there are a range of other critical issues which we also hope are discussed but we know Labour members care a lot about these issues, which is why we’re prioritising them.”
Luke Akehurst, of the centrist Labour First group, tweeted his reaction.
Former Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop suggested the real motive was to avoid a damaging split on the Left between those who wanted a clear pro-EU line and those who see Brexit as a way to avoid a ‘bosses’ Europe’.