The Labour leader is braced for a backlash from some former Remain supporters among his MPs and party activists, but HuffPost UK understands that at present he is “likely” to recommend support for a late agreement hammered out with Brussels.
Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves told a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) on Monday night that she and Starmer would carefully scrutinise any free trade agreement brought before parliament in coming weeks.
Reeves, who shadows Michael Gove’s Brexit preparations, stressed that there would be no blank cheques for the government. “Keir and I will read the deal. We are not being bounced into this decision,” she told MPs.
But after presenting an analysis of each of the options – to vote for, abstain or vote against – she made clear that the leadership’s current view was leaning towards supporting a trade and security deal agreed between Johnson and the EU.
Abstaining would mean the deal would still go through the Commons thanks to the Tories’ majority and would not in practice be any different from supporting it, Reeves suggested.
The party leadership is “extremely unlikely” to vote against the legislation.
Negotiations between London and Brussels are set to resume in earnest this Thursday and there is renewed speculation that thorny issues on state aid, fishing and governance rules can be resolved or at least parked in a new deal that would kick in from January 1, 2021.
Although the UK formally left the EU earlier this year, its trade and security links with the bloc continued largely unchanged during a “transition period” that is due to end on December 31.
Any deal will need to be approved in the form of British legislation before the end of the year, as well as being ratified by EU states.
Starmer, who made his reputation as a strong pro-Remain campaigner and won party conference cheers for saying it should be an option in a second referendum, is determined to “move on” from the EU debate following Labour’s shattering defeat in the last general election.
At the PLP meeting, Reeves led discussions on how a trade deal, even if inadequate, could provide a “platform” that could be built by a future Labour government.
Backing a deal would also show the party was sticking to its pledge under Starmer to listen to voters lost to the Tories in key Labour heartlands, she said.
Labour will still highlight flaws in the Tory deal, but its priority was the party’s long term view that no deal would be the worst possible scenario.
Party sources stress that no decision has yet been taken and that whipping will be a matter for the shadow cabinet and leadership after any deal legislation emerges.
Reeves won strong support from backbench former ministers Hilary Benn, Liam Byrne, Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper, as well as new MPs like Sarah Owen. One MP from a strong Remain-voting constituency also made clear they were prepared to back the deal.
However, other pro-Remain MPs pushed back strongly in the PLP meeting and suggested that an abstention would be the best option for Labour.
One MP said there was “real concern” among both backbenchers and some shadow ministers that voting for a Tory “hard Brexit” deal would be a big mistake with long-term consequences.
Brexit critics in the party point out that both Johnson’s plan for a “free trade agreement” and a no-deal outcome will be worse for the economy than even the Covid pandemic shock over the long term.
“Every time we draw attention to the damage over the next four years the riposte will be ‘but you voted for it’,” one MP said. “No one will thank us in four years’ time as they survey the wreckage.
“Once Covid is over, Brexit and the inadequacies of the Johnson deal will come back to dominate.”
It is unclear whether the party would impose a three-line whip, given the risk of a rebellion by its most vociferously anti-Brexit MPs.
Leftwingers such as former chair Ian Lavery and Len McCluskey have claimed that Labour’s failure to respect Brexit voters was the driving reason for the party’s defeat in 2019.
Although some like Lavery have urged Starmer to make a public apology for backing a second referendum policy, the Labour leader has shown no intention of doing so.
In a joint article for HuffPost UK this month, Lavery and Jon Trickett and ex-MP Laura Smith said: “To rebuild trust that has been lost and restore people’s trust in politics, Labour should say sorry.
“This is not only about Labour winning elections but restoring faith in democracy. We do not believe that the party can move on until it has put this issue behind us.”