Keir Starmer is facing a revolt from Labour frontbenchers over his decision to back the government’s Brexit trade deal.
The party leader has been warned that shadow ministers are poised to resign and defy a three-line whip when the House of Commons votes on the deal on Wednesday.
Starmer on Thursday called for Labour MPs to vote for Boris Johnson’s deal, saying it was a “binary choice” between the deal on offer or no deal.
“When this deal comes before parliament, Labour will accept it, and vote for it,” he said.
Starmer described Johnson’s deal as “thin”, saying it would not underpin workers’ rights or adequately protect sectors such as manufacturing and the creative industries.
Labour MPs had urged Starmer to abstain in the vote, saying he would be unable to hold the government to account for its economic consequences if Labour had supported it.
Others, including some of those who refused to vote to trigger the article 50 process of leaving the EU, would like Labour to vote against.
Sources confirmed that several frontbenchers are preparing to step down over the vote, while many others will support Starmer’s position while wishing he would abstain.
“We seem to be making a stand over a Conservative project. It is deeply uncomfortable for some MPs,” said one source.
Shadow cabinet members – including the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, and the shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry – are known to have expressed concerns about the idea of supporting the deal, though they are expected to abide by collective responsibility.
Those who may stand down are believed to be shadow junior ministers, not from the shadow cabinet.
Dodds tweeted on Thursday that the agreement would have a “major negative impact” on GDP and pointed out that it would not have the “exact same benefits” as EU membership – a promise that Starmer included as one of his “six tests” of Theresa May’s deal when he was the shadow Brexit secretary.
But Starmer insisted that “leadership is about taking the tough decisions in the national interest”, adding: “It is about being a serious, responsible opposition. At a moment of such national significance, it is not credible for Labour to be on the sidelines.”
Several Labour MPs have warned the party that they plan to vote against the deal in keeping with their constituents’ opposition to Brexit, with some saying that dozens could revolt.
One source said: “We are being asked to support a Boris Johnson deal that is full of holes, on issues of security, fishing rights or level playing fields. Plus, it is going to go through anyway on Tory votes alone. I do not understand Keir’s position.”
Both Houses of Parliament will be recalled on 30 December, with the Commons sitting from 9.30am and the Lords from noon, to push through a bill implementing the deal – potentially in a single day.
The Speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has urged MPs and their staff to avoid travelling if possible, given the Covid restrictions in place in many parts of the country and the prevalence of the disease in London.
With Labour’s support, even a significant rebellion by Eurosceptic MPs on the Tory benches – which appears unlikely – will not prevent the deal from passing.