Labour rebels dismiss accusations of fuelling Brexit ‘division’

Jeremy Corbyn and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson
Jeremy Corbyn and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson
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Labour rebels have hit back at accusations that they are fueling internal “divisions” over Brexit, as they argue the party leadership must take a stronger line on preserving Britain’s links to the EU.

A total of 49 Labour MPs chose to defy Jeremy Corbyn during Thursday’s Queen’s Speech debate when they voted in favour of an amendment calling for the UK to remain inside the Single Market.

The rebellion has since been dismissed as “unnecessary” and “disappointing” by senior party members, with critics accusing MPs of trying to create splits on Europe when they should be focussing their energy on holding the Tories to account.

But MPs have defended their decision, suggesting the party must be willing to reopen debate on policy to avoid a potentially “devastating” Brexit deal.

The Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman was one of two Yorkshire MPs who defied party whips to vote in favour of the amendment.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he played down reports of a party rift, but said many members are looking for the leadership to take a “much stronger” position on maintaining access to the Single Market.

“It was very clear in our manifesto that we were very positive about keeping our links into the European market, and some of us were very puzzled that we didn’t have a much stronger mention of that in our Queen’s Speech resolution,” he said.

“Over these next crucial two years we have got to have a good deal, and I wont stop being loud and clear voice for that.”

Mr Sheerman went on to suggest the a “new Parliament [and] new set of circumstances” should be used as a fresh opportunity to debate Labour policy. He told the paper “opinions will have to be aired” within the party to ensure it is “protecting our communities” from a potentially “devastating” Brexit deal.

His comments follow an intervention by the deputy leader Tom Watson, who claimed the decision of some MPs to “break away” with the amendment was “politically unhelpful” at a time when the party was enjoying a boost from the recent election.

Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, he said their attempt to “divide Labour MPs a week and a half in” was “a little disappointing”.

He was joined in his criticism by the Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, who described the rebellion as “totally inappropriate”. “Parliament was just seven votes shy of overturning the Government’s cruel pay cap, yet instead of keeping up the pressure, some [MPs] seem determined to let the Conservatives off the hook,” he said.

Meanwhile, it emerged that a number of MPs who originally supported the motion, including the Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel, abstained from the vote after receiving assurances from the Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer.

Writing on his Facebook page, Mr Sobel said he was among a group of MPs who met with Sir Keir ahead of the debate, where they were promised “ongoing engagement on Labour’s position on Brexit”.

But Mr Sheerman’s fellow Yorkshire rebel, the Keighley MP John Grogan, chose to support the amendment, claiming he was doing what he believed was “best for the country”. “I am a believer in a soft Brexit which protects jobs and investment into Keighley and Yorkshire,” he said.

“I think backbenchers have a key role in this Parliament in speaking out and using their votes to get a good Brexit deal.”