Jeremy Corbyn’s latest attempt to unite his party over Brexit has been dismissed by MPs as “nowhere near enough”, as rebels accused him of having “dropped the ball” and warned they will defy his voting instructions.
MPs rubbished a new parliamentary motion tabled by the Labour leadership on Tuesday in a bid to quell an uprising among pro-EU backbenchers ahead of crunch votes next week.
The amendment seeks to force the government to negotiate a Brexit deal that would see the UK retain “full access” to the EU’s single market and guarantee “no new impediments” to trade.
The move is designed to convince dozens of potential Labour rebels not to support another motion, passed by the House of Lords, that would keep Britain in the European Economic Area (EEA) – in effect, remaining part of the single market.
Mr Corbyn had come under mounting pressure to back the amendment, despite having previously dismissed the idea of staying in the EEA as “not appropriate”. There are believed to be enough Conservative rebel MPs for the motion to pass if Labour also supported it.
However, the shadow cabinet decided on Tuesday that Labour MPs would be whipped to abstain on the motion.
Instead, they will be ordered to back Labour’s amendment, which a source said would result in an “EEA style” arrangement in which Britain retains the benefits of the single market without remaining a full member.
The source said the move was designed to be a compromise that Labour MPs could unite behind, after it became “abundantly clear” that MPs in Leave-supporting constituencies would not vote in favour remaining in the EEA.
But in a sign of ongoing divisions in the party, prominent backbenchers said the move was “nowhere near enough” and vowed to defy the party whip in order to vote to keep Britain in the EEA.
One source said around 65 Labour MPs are believed to be willing to vote against the party leadership on the issue.
Chuka Umunna, one of the most vocal anti-Brexit voices in the Commons, said: “The only way of realising the objectives set out in the amendment, short of EU membership, is through the UK being part of the European Economic Area, as a minimum.
“Like the Tory government and hard Brexiteers, this amendment seeks 'access' to the EU's single market, but this is nowhere near enough. What the overwhelming majority of Labour members and supporters want is so much more - to be part of the framework of protections for workers, consumers and the environment which being part of the European Economic Area uniquely offers to non-EU members.
“All the way through the passage of this Bill, the only amendments which have commanded support on both sides of the House and passed are cross party backbench ones. So, if we are serious about ‘protecting full access to the internal market of the EU’ and ensuring ‘no new impediments to trade’, logic dictates Labour MPs should be whipped to support the cross-party EEA amendment sent to us by the House of Lords.”
Another pro-EU Labour MP, Chris Leslie, said Conservative MPs were ready to join forces with Labour but would not support a motion tabled by Mr Corbyn or the Opposition front bench.
He told The Independent: “The Lords have sent down a golden opportunity for the Commons to actually change the government’s negotiating objectives, and to miss that historic opportunity would be utterly unforgivable and cause widespread dismay across the Labour movement.
“I’m quite worried that in pursuit of a policy of constructive ambiguity, we’re throwing away this once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the best interests of the country first.
“There is a strong likelihood that Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy will be to have facilitated Brexit and dropped the ball on this golden chance to keep the country in the single market, and I find that staggering.”
Describing the Labour frontbench motion as a “fig leaf” designed to convince MPs not to back the EEA amendment, he added: “I’m frustrated and depressed in equal measure.
“It feels like Labour is playing parliamentary games rather than grasping this once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
Another Labour rebel told The Independent: "They have been calling people and saying, don't vote for the Lords amendment, you can vote for our own one instead.
"But what they have put down doesn't mean anything. They must think we were born yesterday.
"The creative ambiguity they keep going back to works up to a certain point, but in the end they are going to have say what they want, they are not there yet."
The 15 amendments made to the flagship EU Withdrawal Bill by the House of Lords will be considered by the Commons next Tuesday, with ministers’ hopes of overturning them all likely to be strongly challenged by Conservative rebels.
Announcing Labour’s new motion, Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said: “Labour will only accept a Brexit deal that delivers the benefits of the single market and protects jobs and living standards.
"Existing single market agreements that the EU has negotiated with third countries, including Norway, are bespoke deals negotiated with the EU to serve the best interests of those countries. We need to learn from them and negotiate our own more ambitious agreement, which serves our economic interests and which prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland.
He added: “Two years on from the referendum it is clear that the Government has no plan for how it will protect jobs and the economy, and guarantee no hard border in Northern Ireland.
“Labour’s amendment, along with a commitment to negotiate a new comprehensive customs union with the EU, is a strong and balanced package that would retain the benefits of the single market. Parliament should have the opportunity to debate and vote on it.”
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