Labour Brexit divisions set to dominate conference

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last night avoided a potentially divisive clash over Brexit at Labour’s party conference, as disagreements between senior figures and grassroots members threatened to dominate this week’s agenda.

Jeremy Corbyn yesterday came under fresh pressure to commit to keeping the UK in the single market, after more than 30 Labour MPs and peers signed an open letter to the leader and anti-Brexit protesters lined the pavements outside the conference venue.

The signs of a growing rift on policy came amid reports of fresh tensions between “hard-left” and “moderate” wings, as MPs complained of being barred from speaking on the main stage.

The pro-Corbyn group Momentum was yesterday accused of attempting to block a debate on Brexit after the issue failed to make it on to the official conference programme.

Addressing members today, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer is expected to declare that Labour “ stand[s] ready to take charge” of negotiations with the EU.

He will tell delegates: “Labour are now the grown-ups in the room... Not acting for narrow political gain, but in the national interest.

“The way the Tories are handling Brexit tells you a lot about their competence - or should I say incompetence. But it also tells you about their character. About their post-imperial delusions [and] their willingness to put other people’s jobs at risk.

“Our country today is so much better than our Government. This is a country yearning for change. Theresa May – and whichever Brexiteer replaces her – cannot deliver that change.”

Setting out Labour’s vision for Brexit, he will go on to state that the party remains committed to respecting the result of the referendum while “[putting] jobs and the economy first”.

He will also defend the party’s history of values of cooperation and internationalism, stressing that “as we exit the EU, we should not abandon these values. On the contrary [they] should drive everything we do.”

However, his speech is set against a backdrop of ongoing divisions within the PLP over Brexit, with 34 MPs and peers publishing a letter in the Observer calling on the party to “commit to staying in the single market and customs union”. The group, which includes Sheffield MP Angela Smith and Yorkshire MEP Richard Corbett, say the party “must go further” than arguing for a transition period.

This was followed by a fresh intervention by the head of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Clive Lewis, who suggested the party should not be bound by its manifesto commitment to end free movement after Brexit. This put him at loggerheads with the Don Valley MP Caroline Flint, who yesterday insisted that maintaining the status quo on EU migration would be unacceptable to British voters.

Responding to the letter, Mr Corbyn said he wanted to ensure “tariff-free access to the European market” but claimed restrictions associated with full membership would prevent Labour from implementing plans to renationalise public services. On immigration, he told the BBC’s Marr show that he sympathised with Labour members who support free movement, but said he was opposed to the abuse of the system by some employers.

The former minister John Spellar complained on Sunday that MPs were being blocked from taking part in debates on the main conference floor.

There were also reports in the Huffington Post that the pro-Corbyn group Momentum had encouraged Labour members not to push for Brexit to be included on the official conference agenda in last night’s ballot.