JEREMY CORBYN faces a revolt in Labour’s ranks tonight as MPs vote on giving Theresa May the power to trigger the start of Britain’s divorce talks with the European Union.
Senior shadow cabinet minster Clive Lewis indicated he has still not made his mind up whether to obey a three-line whip imposed by the party leader for Wednesday evening’s vote.
Meanwhile, allies of the Labour leader moved to quash rumours circulating in Westminster that Mr Corbyn has set a date to step down as leader.
A senior Labour source said there was “no truth” to suggestions the leader had informed his inner circle of plans to quit, while shadow cabinet member Ian Lavery said: “There’s not a grain of truth to the rumours about Jeremy stepping down.
“Lots of gossip happens around this place, but we know from previous rumours that it’s not always reliable.”
Mr Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs to back the European Union (Notification Of Withdrawal) Bill in its final Commons stage risks further high-profile resignations from the shadow cabinet.
Mr Lewis has previously said he would vote against the bill - which allows Mrs May to begin withdrawal talks under Article 50 of the EU treaties - unless the Government accepted a set of Labour amendments designed to safeguard against a “hard Brexit”.
With Labour’s amendments defeated the previous night, Mr Lewis - seen by many as a potential future leader - told the BBC on Wednesday morning: “I’ve got to make a decision on how I vote. I’m going to make my mind up. I don’t know - lot on my plate, lot on everyone’s plate.”
Some 47 pro-Remain Labour MPs defied the leadership to oppose the bill at second reading, with shadow environment secretary Rachael Maskell, shadow Wales secretary Jo Stevens and shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler, stepping down from Mr Corbyn’s top team to do so.
At the third reading vote, all eyes will be on Mr Lewis, as well as on key Corbyn ally Diane Abbott, who was widely ridiculed for suffering from a bout of “Brexit flu” after she blamed a migraine for her failure to turn up to vote on the bill.
MPs are expected to debate the bill allowing Article 50 to be triggered for up to seven hours, with the final vote expected to be held at around 8pm.
Despite ministers’ success in seeing off amendments to the legislation, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer insisted the party was “chipping away” at the Government’s position.
An assurance MPs and peers will get a vote on the final deal before it goes to the European Parliament for ratification amounted to a significant victory, he said, despite warnings from other Labour figures it does not amount to the “meaningful” vote the party has been seeking.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Keir questioned whether Mrs May would be in a position to make good on her warning a vote against the agreement would mean the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal.
Rather than being faced with a “take it or leave it” choice, MPs will be in a position to put pressure on the Prime Minister to go back to Brussels and try to get a better deal, he suggested.
“The idea the Prime Minister would seriously say in 2019, ‘well, rather than go back and see if I can improve and satisfy Parliament I will simply crash out’ - that would be a reckless act,” said the shadow Brexit secretary.
“She would have to reflect on that and if it was five months to run before the deadline I think most people would say it’s reckless at that stage to throw her toys out of the pram and say ‘I’m not even prepared to see if I can improve on what I have got’.”
Sir Keir also suggested there might eventually be two votes - one in late 2018 or early 2019 on the EU divorce deal secured by Mrs May, followed by another some time later on an agreement on future trade relations with the remaining 27 members.
The Government insists it intends to complete the two deals at the same time.
Mr Corbyn has yet to announce whether he will sack 10 junior shadow ministers and three whips - enforcers charged with instilling party discipline - who defied his orders to vote for the Article 50 bill last week.
Asked on Sunday whether they would lose their jobs, he said he would make the position clear later in the week, but stressed he was a “lenient” man.
After the bill has cleared the Commons, it will go on to the House of Lords, where it is expected to be challenged by europhile peers.
Prominent Brexiteer and Conservative MP Dominic Raab told the BBC that its passage without amendment through the lower house “sends a very powerful message to the unelected Lords that they should not try to block it”.
Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman said she hoped Mr Lewis would not resign as shadow business secretary, telling the BBC: “I hope that Clive stays on, but it’s a choice he has to be allowed to make for himself.”
Labour MP Owen Smith said Mrs May had been “utterly captured” by right-wing eurosceptics in her party and that Labour should not be backing a bill which will allow her to take the UK to “the hardest possible exit from the EU”.
“Labour should be fighting that, Labour should be standing up for what we believe to be in the national interest and in my view that is certainly not leaving the EU on these terms,” said the Pontypridd MP, who last year challenged Mr Corbyn for the leadership.
Remain-backing Conservative MP Anna Soubry, who rebelled for the first time over the Article 50 bill, said she “gravely fears” that hardline Brexiteers are now running the show over EU negotiations, while “sensible, moderate people like me are being excluded”.
Ms Soubry warned that it may prove “impossible” for Mrs May to reach a final deal within the two-year deadline, adding: “Unfortunately, the minister said that there will be no vote in this case.”