Labour’s Brexit camps were at odds as Keir Starmer rejected claims he would squander the chance to defeat the government over an amendment to keep the UK in a Norway-style deal, saying his party was too divided to back it.
Labour sources suggested dozens of MPs in leave-backing seats had quietly warned they were prepared to rebel if the party leadership decided to back a Lords amendment to keep the UK in the European Economic Area when the EU withdrawal bill returns to the Commons next week.
In private conversations, some shadow ministers are understood to have said they might be prepared to rebel should Labour decide to whip in favour, presenting enough opposition to cancel out the number of Tory rebels.Instead, Labour’s frontbench announced a new amendment to the EU withdrawal bill, proposing “full access to the internal market of the European Union”.
The new amendment stops short of calling for the full single market membership sought by a vocal group of Labour MPs.
Several pro-EU Labour MPs said the move would throw away the potential to defeat the government on the EEA amendment because pro-EU Conservative rebels were highly unlikely to back a Labour frontbench amendment, as opposed to a cross-party amendment led by backbenchers.
Starmer said there was no prospect of government defeat, because of the depth of the divide in the Labour party. He said MPs such as Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna who backed the EEA amendment were well aware “it does not command support in their own party”.
Starmer said there were “very divided views” in the party about a Norway-style model and he was “injecting some honesty about where we are in the party”.
“The pretence that everyone in the Labour party is in the same place on this, and therefore it is winnable, is a pretence and it really doesn’t help,” he said.
Several Labour MPs from leave-voting seats, including John Mann, Caroline Flint and John Spellar, have made it clear in private meetings of Labour MPs over the past fortnight that they oppose Labour giving the EEA option its backing.
The shadow ministers Jenny Chapman and Kevan Jones have also been highly critical. Jones, the shadow armed forces minister, was pointedly critical of Umunna on Twitter, quoting him saying the Norway model would “hurt UK” and saying: “What a difference 2 years makes, didn’t think EEA was such a shiny proportion during referendum.”
Starmer said the vocally pro-EEA MPs “know as well as I do that their own colleagues in the party are indicating they are not prepared to vote for this”.
Umunna said he did not accept Starmer’s argument that there was not enough backbench Labour support for the full-EEA option. “The idea that there is insufficient Conservative support for the cross-party amendment is nonsense. Nor do I accept there is insufficient support in the parliamentary Labour party,” he said.
“If the frontbench think EEA membership isn’t good enough at least adopt it as a starting point. A bespoke deal would take at least another three to four years by which time not only will we have left the EU, but the transition period would also have expired.”
The pro-remain Conservative MP Anna Soubry said Tory rebels would not swing behind the new Labour proposal. “If you read the Labour amendment, you might think it had been crafted by Boris Johnson because it is perfectly representative of the cake-and-eat-it position of Her Majesty’s government,” she told an event held by the anti-hard-Brexit campaign group Open Britain.
EU negotiators have repeatedly made it clear that there can be no “cherry picking” or division of the four freedoms of the single market, which include the free movement of people.
An EU diplomat said Labour was “not serious about this amendment” and knew it would self combust. But the EU remained open to changing its offer, should the UK’s red lines change, they said stressed.
Starmer said Brussels had indicated to him that if the UK cleared away some of its red lines on issues such as the European court of justice, it could open the door to a different tone of negotiations.
“If the red lines change, there is a different negotiation to be had. In my discussions with them … it is clear that what they mean by that is: if we signal we want a close economic relationship then there is a conversation and negotiation to be had and it will involve some of the tools in the Norway-style toolbox,” he said. “We should have that before giving up on it.”