Labour’s Caroline Flint caused controversy this week after saying she could back Theresa May’s Brexit deal and that up to 45 of her colleagues could do the same. But she insists Labour must stop a no deal ‘disaster’. Arj Singh reports.
“This is bigger than Theresa May, this is bigger than Boris, this is bigger than the Labour Party”.
Labour’s Caroline Flint is, of course, talking about Brexit, and her commitment to backing a “reasonable” deal this winter if the Prime Minister achieves one in Brussels.
At first glance, you would be hard-pushed to find many who disagree with the outspoken former Minister.
But she is coming under a “huge amount of pressure” to oppose the deal from pro-EU campaigners and Jeremy Corbyn-backing Labour activists, who like their leader believe they can force either a second referendum or the collapse of the Government and a ride to power in a general election if they join Tory Brexiteers in voting it down.
That was seen in the storm of criticism on social media and mini-protest outside Ms Flint’s office this week after The Yorkshire Post revealed that she thinks up to 45 Labour MPs could rebel against any orders from Mr Corbyn to oppose the deal, and instead back it.
But for the Don Valley MP, who voted Remain but represents a heavily Leave backing seat, if Parliament votes down the deal it could unleash even more unpalatable forces than whatever is served up by Mrs May and Brussels.
“In the event of Parliament voting down the divorce treaty, the only certainty is that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March,” she says.
“That’s not just UK law, it’s EU law as well.
“If Labour voted with Rees-Mogg, Johnson et al to defeat a deal, I want to know that we are not gifting the Mogg-Johnsons the hardest of no deal Brexits.
“I’m not convinced that this outcome could be stopped.”
While Mr Corbyn will wait until a deal is on the table before instructing his MPs how to vote, it is unlikely to meet Labour’s “six tests” and so the party appears certain to oppose it.
Ms Flint describes one of these tests - that any deal must deliver the exact same benefits as staying in the single market - as “disingenuous” because Labour has committed to ending free movement of people and so cannot secure the same trade terms as now.
Given that 50 Tory MPs now have now publicly backed a campaign to block Mrs May’s Brexit plan, and with the Democratic Unionists (DUP) enraged by the so-called Irish backstop plan, this would give little hope of a deal getting through Parliament, unless there are enough MPs like Ms Flint.
For her, it is about honesty with the public.
She insists she would vote to force a general election “tomorrow” through the vote of no confidence required by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, “but there is no way the Tories or DUP would allow a no confidence motion to be passed – that would be turkeys voting for Christmas.”
And so then the choice for Labour becomes clear.
“If the Government comes back with a deal that the Irish Republic signs up to, I think those that say they are not supporting a bad deal, they basically have to detail what a bad deal is.
“Because I don’t think that a deal involving the 27 EU members and the UK Government is in any way going to produce a bad deal at the end of the day.
“I am not committing to voting for anything at the moment because I haven’t seen what’s on the table, but I tell you what I am very worried about a situation where it’s a choice between deal or no deal and we end up with no deal, because I think that would be an absolute disaster.”
Tantalisingly, she suggests shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer and his team, who have been credited for softening Labour’s Brexit position, are listening to her concerns, and Ms Flint says there has been discussion “across the parliamentary Labour Party” about whether if there is a deal that maintains a soft Irish border “how do we weigh up the risk of losing that deal to a no deal?”
“And credit Keir and his team in a difficult situation trying to keep together lots of disparate views on this issue, he has always had an open door to listening to anyone,” she adds.
Whatever happens, Ms Flint struggles to say what benefits Brexit will immediately bring to the 70 per cent of voters in Doncaster who voted Leave, acknowledging it could take a decade before the true impact is realised.
But she is keen to show that life is going on, with challenges and improvements, in her constituency.
She highlights the completion of the Great Yorkshire Way link road that is making it easier for people to get to the airport and the iPort logistics park, as well as commute to Sheffield, remarking: “You don’t get projects every day when people come up to you and spontaneously say ‘god that road’s good’.”
She adds: “Quite often, particularly those who don’t like the outcome of the referendum say everything is doom and gloom, well it’s not all doom and gloom and I think people’s experience on the ground is really important on this.”
Ultimately the Brexit vote has given a voice to post-industrial towns like Doncaster which have been ignored for 30 years, she says.
Ms Flint explains: “I do believe that what has come out of this referendum is a voice that wasn’t being heard at the top of politics, about how modernisation and globalisation in many communities across the UK has not benefited them in a way that others have seen.
"I think one of the benefits of this is suddenly everyone is talking about the so-called left behind towns, and that includes ours and that’s good because they haven’t had the attention they deserve.”
Dancing with a rock star on TV
Caroline Flint last week found herself an unlikely player in an online viral video hit after appearing on BBC’s This Week with Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie.
A clip showing the rock star sat stock still looking extremely unimpressed as Ms Flint danced alongside Michael Portillo and host Andrew Neil as the credits rolled was viewed thousands of times online.
Afterwards, Gillespie took to social media to describe the whole episode as “sickening”.
But Ms Flint today jokes: “I’m not sure what conversation there was between Bobby, his people and the programme makers as to what was expected.
“The look on Bobby’s face - it’s a line from that Mike Leigh film - it’s don’t sit there with a face like a slapped a**e, and somebody suggested that’s exactly what he looked like.”