Labour frontbench sackings expose deep Brexit divisions

by Luke Lythgoe | 30.06.2017

Passing the Queen’s Speech through Parliament was supposed to be a test for Theresa May’s rickety minority government. Instead, an amendment by Labour backbenchers demanding continued membership of the EU’s single market has exposed deep Brexit divisions within the opposition.

The amendment, tabled by Labour MP Chuka Umunna, demanded that the Queen’s Speech set out “proposals to remain within the Customs Union and Single Market”. This contradicts Labour’s manifesto, which says only that the Brexit talks should have a “strong emphasis on retaining the benefits” of these institutions.

The amendment was defeated by 322 votes to 101, with the majority of Labour MPs abstaining. However, 49 Labour MPs voted in favour, including four of Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench. Three were sacked and one resigned ahead of the vote.

Tellingly, all four were recently re-elected in Remain-voting constituencies: Ruth Cadbury in Brentford and Isleworth, Andy Slaughter in Hammersmith, Catherine West in Hornsey and Wood Green, and Daniel Zeichner in Cambridge.

Cadbury’s statement said it all. She explained that “strong support” from her constituents to “secure a Brexit settlement that secured jobs, rights and environmental protections” left her in “no doubt” that she must support the amendment.

Corbyn may want to believe that his party’s unexpectedly impressive performance at the election was down to his anti-austerity message. But in many seats – especially in London and university towns – Labour won on a platform of opposition to May’s hard Brexit.

As a result, many MPs find Labour’s fence-straddling policies towards Europe at odds with their constituents’ views. InFacts calculates that 29% of Labour’s MPs are from constituencies where over 55% of people voted for Remain; the equivalent figure for Tory MPs is just 11%.

Twenty-one Labour MPs are in seats where over 70% voted to stay in the EU. They include big hitters with commanding majorities like Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Corbyn himself, but also many others who felt less secure going into the election – MPs like Catherine West. Of the 80 or so MPs left on Corbyn’s frontbench team (that’s everyone from shadow secretaries of state to junior whips), 22 won in constituencies with significant Remain votes.

Corbyn faces a huge task producing a Brexit message which suits both metropolitan remainers and leavers in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands. Pitching it wrong could see him once again at war with his parliamentary party – although his swift sacking of the three frontbench dissenters suggests he feels confident enough following the election to assert his authority.

None of this is to say that Labour is in a weaker position over Europe than the Conservative party, with public spats erupting between Tory cabinet ministers on the length of a transitional deal and other Brexit minutiae.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, put his finger on it, lamenting the divisions Umunna’s amendment has caused: “I just felt that given we’d come out of the general election with such an unexpected result, and there’s a real euphoria, to try and divide Labour MPs a week and a half in was a little disappointing.” Disappointing, yes. But with so many conflicting interests and a leader who clearly doesn’t believe in the EU himself, hardly surprising.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

2 Responses to “Labour frontbench sackings expose deep Brexit divisions”

  • This reads more like wishful thinking.

    Brexit is a Tory mess.

    All Corbyn needs to do is ride it out without committing to anything, giving the Tories enough breathing space to destroy themselves over it.

    Chuka and co’s gesture was not only futile, it demonstrated that more and more of the PLP are getting behind Jeremy, much to the chagrin of Chuka’s string-pullers like Peter Mandelson.

    PLP scheming and plotting to get rid of Corbyn has backfired massively, and the reality is that opposing Brexit isn’t, in the near future anyway, an issue that the Labour rebels, those opposed to Corbyn regardless, are going to find much traction from.

  • The danger about sitting on the Brexit situation, as Partrick seems to suggest, is that time is not on the side of those wanting to, at the very least, prevent a Hard Brexit. The Tory strategy seems to be to allow T. May a clear run until the Brexit bills are on the statute book, and then get rid of her. However, in life, prevention is usually better than a cure. In other words, it is far more difficult to right a wrong after it has happened, than stopping it from happening in the first place.
    Therefore, those on the Labour side who want to retain membership of the Single Market and do not want to see our relationship with Europe in tatters, have to act now. This is actually more important than party politics because the outcome will shape the country’s destiny for decades.
    There must be cross-party collaboration to ensure that the Brexit bills, at least as proposed by the Government, are blocked.
    The danger of waiting too long is that, the closer the 29 March 2019 deadline is approached, the more the Government will have the pro-Europe forces over a barrell. And once the Bills are on the statute book, it will be mission accomplished for the Government. It is also unlikely that the EU will have the appetite to go through the excercise again.