Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is facing his own revolt over Brexit, after MPs criticised his fight against the Article 50 exit notice.
Rebels say they cannot face their voters if they have given the impression they are failing to “accept the result of the referendum”.
One said the Lib Dems should rise above “meaningless gesture politics and party political games” he said were played by Labour and the Tories in the Commons this week and be fully focussed on fighting for the best possible Brexit deal.
Three of Mr Farron's MPs – a third of his shrunken Commons party – failed to obey his instruction to vote against Theresa May’s rapid timetable for withdrawal on Wednesday, with the rebellion threatening to undermine his claim that “only the Liberal Democrats are providing a real opposition to the Conservative Brexit government”.
It could also stymie the momentum the Lib Dems gained with a stunning victory in last week’s Richmond Park by-election, built on the party’s staunch opposition to Brexit.
The Independent has learned that Mr Farron faced strong criticism when he told his MPs to vote against a Government amendment to give backing to the Prime Minister’s policy to “invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017”.
In the end, three of the other eight Lib Dem MPs – Norman Lamb (North Norfolk), Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) and John Pugh (Southport) – all abstained.
Mr Mulholland told The Independent: “I am not prepared to give the impression that I do not accept the result of the referendum, or that I am seeking to block it.
“The motion clearly stated that that the result of the referendum must be respected, so voting against it could be taken as not doing so.”
He added: “What is actually important are not meaningless gesture politics and party political games, it is working to ensure that Britain has the closest, strongest relationship we can with EU countries.”
Mr Pugh said the Lib Dems must not give people the impression “we are sore losers” or that the party wanted to “stop the negotiation process itself from happening”.
He added: “That is why we must be careful about putting any and every obstacle in the way of exploring the options.
“Even leavers will eventually realise they cannot have their cake and eat it - but trying to snatch their cake off them just now might not be the best way to persuade them.”
Mr Lamb made similar comments to his local paper, saying: “I don’t feel comfortable with having voted for the referendum in the first place - as we all did - and to then vote to block the triggering of the Article.
“I think it would be inconsistent therefore for me to oppose tonight.”
Mr Lamb also hinted at the difficulties of representing a Leave-voting constituency, adding: “I have the farming community talking to me about this.”
The revolt has parallels with the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, when Mr Farron was pulled back from a policy of supporting re-joining the EU after Brexit.
Since Wednesday, the focus has been on Labour’s internal troubles after 23 MPs defied their party leadership – and dozens more abstained – by failing to vote for the amendment.
They said their party had failed to extract a higher enough price in return, with only a vague commitment that Ms May must publish a “plan” before then.
The Lib Dems declined to comment on the three abstentions.
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