Jeremy Corbyn faced his biggest backbench revolt since he became leader, as Labour’s divisions on Europe broke out once more on Wednesday night.
In a vote on a Lords amendment that would effectively mean staying in the European Economic Area, 75 backbenchers defied party instructions to abstain and voted for the EEA. A further 15 voted against.
Many MPs were frustrated at the front bench attempt to fudge away party differences. The shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer said earlier this week that the party was too divided to pursue the so-called Norway option of EEA membership.
But rebelling on the bill for the first time, Hilary Benn, the former shadow foreign secretary, who chairs the Commons cross-party Brexit committee, said there comes a point where “we have to stand up and be counted”.
He said that remaining in the EEA, which includes membership of the single market, was not a perfect solution. But it was better than all the others.
“It has the one great advantage – it at least looks like a lifeboat. And the closer we get to October, the less inviting the cold sea appears.”
One front bencher and five parliamentary aides resigned from the shadow cabinet ahead of the vote: Laura Smith, a junior shadow cabinet office minister and Ged Killen, Ellie Reeves, Tonia Antoniazzi and Anna McMorrin. Illustrating the divisions in the party, Smith resigned in order to vote against the EEA. She has a majority of just 48 in her leave-voting Crewe and Nantwich seat. On Wednesday evening another private parliamentary secretary, Rosie Duffield (who won the seat of Canterbury in 2017’s most shocking result), resigned in order to back EEA membership.
But whips were relieved that there were not more rebels. A week ago reports of as many as 120 were being touted. r.
John McDonnell, anticipating the revolt, admitted in a speech on Wednesday morning that the party was on a tightrope.
“We campaigned for remain but many of our MPs, including myself, now represent seats which voted heavily leave.
“We are trying to construct at the moment a traditional British compromise and we are trying to drag as many with us as possible both in government and elsewhere around some key elements of that compromise.”
Caroline Flint, a remainer whose Don Valley constituency voted more than two to one to leave, defended her constituents who she said had been insulted “day in and day out by some of the comments in this place and outside are not against all migration”.
Flint said she could not support EEA membership because it would mean there would be no restriction on free movement.
She said her constituents “want to have a sense that we can turn the tap on and off when we choose.
“But also they want us to answer the question why hasn’t Britain got the workforce it needs, why has social mobility stopped, why do we train fewer doctors than Holland or Ireland and why are these jobs dominated by those in the middle and upper classes so my constituents don’t get a look in?”
But the former Europe minister Pat McFadden said it would be “unwise and rash” to take the EEA, the one viable alternative to a Tory deal on Brexit, or no deal at all, off the table.
Backing the Lords amendment, he said “We need to address working class discontent but we do not take the first step to doing that by making the country poorer, to not get the wealth for public services, for housing, and for the better chance in life our working classes deserve.”
Yvette Cooper, the former shadow home secretary who now chairs the home affairs select committee said she would obey the party whip and not vote for membership of the EEA only because she wanted to try to build consensus.
Cooper and Benn had introduced an amendment calling for EEA “with safeguards”. She said her committee had heard evidence about the measures other EU member states were applying to introduce some control over migration, which she had been told could be a way of the UK having full single market access without free movement.