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Corbyn braced for fresh Brexit rebellion

Mr Corbyn also refused to say whether rebellious MPs would lose their roles on the frontbench

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Monday 06 February 2017 01:45 GMT
Jeremy Corbyn faces a frontbench rebellion over Brexit bill vote
Jeremy Corbyn faces a frontbench rebellion over Brexit bill vote (PA)

Jeremy Corbyn is braced for a fresh rebellion this week over the party’s stance on invoking Article 50 as the historic Article 50 bill reaches its final stages in the Commons.

On a day in which one of his key allies, Diane Abbott, came under mounting pressure to quit after she abstained on the first vote last week due to a migraine, the Labour leader also refused to be drawn on whether he would discipline those who voted against triggering the mechanism for exiting the EU.

The Independent understands Mr Corbyn is not likely to replace those who resigned from the shadow Cabinet – after the leadership imposed a three-line whip – until after the final reading and vote on Wednesday evening.

It is expected that more MPs could join those who rebelled last week, if the party fails to secure some of its key amendments to the Government’s EU withdrawal bill. One of the key demands includes securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK before Theresa May serves notice of Article 50 on her self-imposed March deadline.

Clive Lewis, the shadow Business Secretary, who is tipped by some on the left of the party as a future leader, has indicated he could quit the front bench if Labour’s amendment’s in the Commons fall flat.

But in an interview with The Independent Mr Corbyn’s closest ally in Westminster, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, remained optimistic and insisted the parliamentary party would unite once the bill cleared the Commons. Within 12 months, he suggested, Labour would close the poll gap and reverse the political situation in Britain as the Conservatives begin “ripping themselves apart over Brexit”.

On Sunday it was suggested Ms Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, who abstained on the vote last week due to illness, should resign from her high-profile post if she fails to back the leader in the coming days. There has been no suggestion from her aides that she intends to do so but Caroline Flint, a former shadow frontbencher, mocked Ms Abbott for having “Brexit flu”.

“If she can’t support the leader on this then she should go,” Ms Flint added on ITV’s Peston on Sunday. Another Labour MP John Mann suggested she had “bottled it” and called for her to apologise.

Harriet Harman, the former deputy leader of the party, however, defended Ms Abbott. “She said she was ill and unable to vote and I think you just have to accept that,” she added.

It comes after yet another torrid week for the party, in which 47 MPs defied the leadership’s three-line whip – the strictest possible instruction – in order to vote against the Government’s EU withdrawal bill. The legislation, once it passes its hurdles in the Commons and the Lords, provides Theresa May with the power to serve notice of Article 50 – the mechanism to trigger the Brexit negotiations – to the 27 other EU leaders.

Among those who rebelled against Mr Corbyn’s instruction were three shadow Cabinet members – Jo Stevens, Rachael Maskell and Dawn Butler. All of have since resigned from their posts. A further 10 junior frontbenchers voted against the Government’s bill and three party whips. No decision has yet been made on the fate of the rebels but the Labour leader has hinted they would retain their roles, adding he “is a lenient person”.

“I’m talking to all of them,” Mr Corbyn told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend before he visited a mosque in in the capital on Sunday. “We will be announcing changes in the shadow Cabinet in the coming few days.

“I’m a very lenient person,” he added.

Asked whether rebels would keep their jobs at the upcoming third reading, he replied: “You are asking me a very hypothetical question here. I will be making an announcement during the week.”

Speaking to The Independent, Mr McDonnell added that the party abides by the “parliamentary convention whereby if someone is in the shadow Cabinet and voted against it they resign”. On the other ranks within the Parliamentary Labour Party, he added: “The chief whip will report after the Commons stages of the bill itself and we’ll take into account what his recommendations are.”

On Sunday, Emily Thonberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, also hinted Labour would not attempt to block Article 50,even if the party’s amendments did not get accepted in the Commons.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Ms Thornberry said: “We have said that we will not frustrate Brexit. We have got our instructions from the British people. We are democrats and the public have voted to leave the European Union.

“There are going to be negotiations happening in the next week. There are many ways in which the Government may be able to react to this that will be positive.

“On one of the amendments we have put down they may say: ‘We’re not going to support this amendment but during a speech we can give an assurance, we can speak in back channels, we can say you will get this.’

“There will need to be back channels, private conversations. There are many conversations going on now. We are speaking to Government, we are speaking to Tory backbenchers and we are trying to get a compromise that will work.”

MPs will have the chance to debate individual amendments in the coming days before a final seven-hour debate on Wednesday. It will end in a vote before the legislation is then passed to the House of Lords.

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