Keir Starmer, the Labour party leader, faces the threat of resignations from his frontbench team should he order MPs to vote in favour of a Brexit deal agreed by the government.
Labour sources said that there were shadow ministers willing to step down if ordered to vote for the deal that could be agreed this week, with one describing it as a “dangerous moment” for the Starmer’s authority.
The Brexit row is just one of the issues facing the party over the next few months that are set to test Starmer, as he attempts to rejuvenate Labour after its crushing election defeat last year. Figures close to him said that early in the new year, he would begin to spell out how the party would foster a post-Covid recovery and move beyond attacks on the government’s competence.
Since he became leader, Starmer has closed a Tory lead of more than 20 points in the polls to level pegging in recent weeks, but many in the party believe that a combination of unrest on the left, Labour’s reluctance to discuss Brexit and the economic damage wrought by Covid will pose greater challenges for him. Others think the emergence of Covid vaccines in the spring will help Boris Johnson’s government stabilise its reputation after a torrid 2020.
One Labour veteran said that while Starmer had made a strong start by focusing on his competence, many in the party were “worried about Keir, because they don’t feel they know enough about where he sits on the political spectrum”. He added: “I think there is some degree of confusion within the Labour party as to where he stands and what his values are. And that is because of the lack of things that he’s fighting for beyond competence. He has to establish not a set of detailed policies, but a political position, which tells the public that we stand for our values. It has to be about much more than competence.”
How Starmer orders MPs to vote on the Brexit deal, should it be agreed, is already causing anguish among his team. One influential MP said that there was nervousness among frontbenchers and within the shadow cabinet over backing the deal, adding they would “consider their position” should Labour vote for it.
Another said: “There would be several junior ministerial resignations if we were forced to vote for it. I think that it would be a terrible mistake and there are many more people who feel that way in the PLP [parliamentary Labour party] and in the shadow cabinet than has been suggested.”
Figures at the top of the party are convinced voting through a deal is the only realistic option, with sources suggesting that Starmer is ready to order his MPs to back it. However, concern has built since a meeting of Labour MPs early last week, when several spoke in favour of backing a Brexit deal. Some present said they felt the event had been coordinated.
Labour’s internal row over Brexit came as the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told MEPs he was prepared for a further four days of make-or-break negotiations, with growing scepticism among EU member states about the utility of further talks.
Having spent a week in isolation after a member of the bloc’s team tested positive for coronavirus, Barnier and his staff resumed face-to-face negotiations in London on Saturday.
Barnier told MEPs in a private meeting on Friday that he would work through the weekend and then “maybe one or two more days” in a last-ditch attempt to bridge the large gaps between the sides.
EU sources said there was a growing feeling that the lack of progress and the need to prepare businesses for the repercussions of a no-deal British departure from the EU made it unwise for negotiations to continue beyond then.