Keir Starmer is preparing to risk a party rift by throwing Labour’s weight behind a Brexit deal if last-minute negotiations succeed in the coming days.
In what he hopes will be a signal to “red wall” voters that the party has heard them, multiple Labour sources said Starmer, and Cabinet Office shadow minister, Rachel Reeves – who has been liaising with backbenchers on the issue – are minded to impose a three-line whip in support of a deal, subject to the detail.
They have rejected the idea of abstaining or giving MPs a free vote, fearing it would suggest Labour has failed to absorb the lessons of the pasting it took in last December’s general election.
Brexit deal negotiations are in their final, make-or-break few days, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier returning to London on Friday to resume face-to-face talks on Saturday despite his threat to pull out earlier in the week.
If a deal can be done, the prime minister is expected to bring it to parliament before Christmas, most likely by tabling the future relationship bill which the Cabinet Office has been working on for several months.
That could potentially allow Labour to signal its lack of enthusiasm by tabling amendments – though these would stand little chance of passing.
Boris Johnson’s majority of 80 means the deal would be highly likely to go through even if Labour abstained, but Starmer and his team believe the consequences of a no-deal exit from the transition period would be too dire for the party to stand on the sidelines.
“If you want something to happen in parliament, the best way to go about it is to vote for it,” said one shadow cabinet member with knowledge of Starmer’s thinking.
They are likely to avoid language such as “supporting” the deal, however. Starmer is also expected to make a speech setting out more details of how Labour sees Britain’s future place in the world.
Even many of those MPs who fought hard during the 2017-19 parliament for a people’s vote are expected to fall in behind the leadership, fearing the dire consequences of a no-deal exit on 1 January.
But some MPs say Starmer’s team, led by former former Darlington MP Jenny Chapman, is too focused on “fighting the last war” by aiming all their political messaging at disgruntled Brexit voters in the red wall.
They believe supporting a Johnson deal will leave Labour unable to hold the government to account for Brexit’s economic consequences, and damage the party in Scotland by allowing Nicola Sturgeon to lump the “Westminster parties” together on the issue. “The SNP will be cock-a-hoop,” said one Labour insider.
Starmer’s allies reject the idea that they will be blamed if Brexit is economically disastrous, however, pointing out that while Labour supported entering the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM) in 1990, it was the Tory government, and not John Smith or Gordon Brown, whom voters held responsible when the UK crashed out two years later.
A different concern is expressed by members of the Love Socialism, Hate Brexit group of MPs, who made the leftwing case for revisiting the 2016 referendum in the last parliament, and were recently addressed by Reeves in a zoom meeting.
Some of this caucus are worried about the idea that the deal will set the pattern for future trade deals for the next decade and beyond, triggering a race to the bottom on rights and regulations.
The Norwich South MP Clive Lewis, who resigned rather than vote for article 50, said: “It’s likely to be a framework deal, which means there will be massive holes in it. That’s in effect a near blank cheque, and it potentially ties Labour’s hands for 10-15 years.
“It’s not just about our relationship with Europe, it’s about regulatory realignment and whether we end up with a neoliberal US-type economy, on workers’ rights, on the environment, on food standards. For people like me, it’s a point of principle.”
Several members of the group – recently relaunched under the name Love Socialism, in recognition that the chance of stopping Brexit has passed – have junior roles on Starmer’s frontbench including Alex Sobel and Rachael Maskell. It also includes Marsha De Cordova, who is in the shadow cabinet.
Meanwhile, the irony of Starmer, who systematically dismantled Theresa May’s Brexit deal with his “six tests”, now whipping MPs to back a deal that will put the UK outside the single market and the customs union, is not lost on some of his Labour colleagues.
One former red wall MP who lost their seat in 2019 said: “I’m thoroughly pissed off that the same group of people who were putting through clever technical bills a year ago are now the same people saying: ‘It’s very important that we support a deal.’ When we were advocating a much softer deal, we were basically hung out as Tory sympathisers.”
There are also questions over whether Johnson would bring any deal to the House for a vote.
Brigid Fowler, a senior researcher at the Hansard Society said the government had the legal means to get around lengthy scrutiny of a document that could extend to 700 pages. It should allow parliament 21 days’ scrutiny under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
“Unless parliament were to sit Fridays and Christmas, it’s too late for the UK to lay a deal before parliament for the 21-sitting-day scrutiny period under the Crag Act and still ratify it before 1 January,” she said.
“But, assuming the deal needs primary legislation to implement it, that legislation could just exempt the treaty from Crag. Or, the government could use section 22 of the Crag Act, which says the act does not apply to a treaty if a minister ‘is of the opinion that, exceptionally, the treaty should be ratified without [its] requirements having been met.’”
Some believe the reaction of the ERG to the details on fishing and sovereignty will dictate the route Johnson takes. “It will be a political question as to whether the government wants to bring it to a vote.”
Barnier, before his return to London, briefed EU ambassadors that “he was clear that things are entirely stuck,” said an EU source.
Barnier’s travel plans appeared to be “driven more by a wish at the highest levels of the European commission to negotiate until the bitter end than actual progress on the ground,” the source added.
In turn, David Frost, who is leading the UK’s negotiating team, offered his own downbeat assessment in a statement on social media, as both sides sought to extract a final deal-making concession.
“Some people are asking me why we are still talking,” Frost tweeted. “My answer is that it’s my job to do my utmost to see if the conditions for a deal exist. It is late, but a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn’t.”
• This article was amended on 28 November 2020 to clarify that Marsha De Cordova is in the shadow cabinet, not in a junior role on the Labour frontbench as stated in an earlier version.