Three Labour frontbenchers quit after defying Keir Starmer on Brexit deal

Tonia Antoniazzi and Helen Hayes among 36 Labour MPs who abstained from vote despite whip to back it

Three Labour MPs have resigned as junior frontbenchers after defying Keir Starmer and refusing to vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

Within hours of the agreement being clinched on Christmas Eve, Starmer announced he would whip his party to support it, despite criticising the substance of the deal as “thin”.

But some Labour MPs felt uncomfortable supporting a deal they believed would damage the economy, and feared it would be difficult to criticise the deal if the party backed it.

Tonia Antoniazzi, the MP for Gower, Helen Hayes, the Dulwich and West Norwood MP, and Florence Eshalomi, the MP for Vauxhall, resigned from their junior frontbench posts so as to abstain as MPs voted on the legislation implementing the agreement.

In a statement on her website, Hayes, who was a shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “This is a bad deal which will make our country poorer. It will cost jobs, undermine our security, weaken our standing in the world, risk workers’ rights and environmental protections, and limit opportunities for our children and grandchildren.”

In total, 36 Labour MPs abstained in the vote, including staunch campaigners against Brexit such as Stella Creasy and Neil Coyle, and leftwingers such as Rebecca Long-Bailey and Diane Abbott.

Just one Labour MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the MP for Streatham, went further and voted against the deal.

During the debate on Wednesday, Starmer made the point forcefully that to vote against the deal would be to countenance a no-deal exit from the Brexit transition period.

He said: “The choice before the house today is perfectly simple. Do we implement the treaty that has been agreed with the EU, or do we not? If we choose not to, the outcome is clear: we leave the transition period without a deal. Without a deal on security, on trade, on fisheries. Without protection for our manufacturing sector, for farming, for countless businesses. And without a foothold to build a future relationship with the EU.”

Several senior Labour MPs, including the Brexit committee chair, Hilary Benn, spoke in support of Starmer’s position, despite their reservations about Johnson’s deal. But others including Clive Lewis, Diane Abbott and Kevin Brennan said they could not follow Starmer’s lead and vote for the legislation, which was being rushed through both houses of parliament in a single day.

Brennan rejected Starmer’s characterisation of the vote as deal versus no deal. “While I understand the desire to move on I simply don’t understand why it’s necessary for those who believe this is a bad deal to vote for it, and dip their fingertips in this abject failure of national ambition,” he said.

Lewis lambasted the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the agreement, saying: “Does the restoration of sovereignty not extend to democratic oversight by elected members of this house?”

He called it “false framing, used to hold this house to ransom” to suggest that opposition to it would mean accepting no deal. “Let’s be clear about what’s being asked for this house today: that’s for a blank cheque to be issued to this government to implement a deal that is devoid of democratic oversight,” he said.

Creasy said in a statement on her website: “Whatever Labour does, the Conservatives will cry foul, suggesting any attempt to scrutinise the deal after it is passed reveals a true intention to fight Brexit. The road ahead will be rocky for all concerned. To abstain is not to refuse to be part of that fight but to refuse to do so on the prime minister’s terms.”

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s former leader, also declined to support the deal. “I cannot vote for this deal, which this government will use to drive down rights and protections, and step up the sell-off of our vital public services. We need instead to break with failed race-to-the-bottom policies and build a Britain that puts people before private profit,” he tweeted.

Corbyn is now sitting as an independent after the whip was withdrawn over comments questioning the scale of the antisemitism problem in Labour under his leadership.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said Starmer’s insistence that voting against the deal meant backing a no-deal Brexit was ludicrous. “Whatever the opposition parties do, this government has a majority of 80 and this deal will pass,” she said. “Now more than ever, people deserve principled leadership based on conviction, not party political calculation.”

She said she was not willing to acquiesce on a deal that “cuts British jobs, sidelines our services sector, undermines hard-won protections for the environment, workers’ rights and consumers, and turns Kent into a diesel-stained monument to hubris and political myopia”.

Contributor

Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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