Labour MPs reveal they are ready to rescue Theresa May's Brexit deal in Commons vote

Exclusive: Boost for prime minister who faces having to rely on opposition votes to secure parliament’s support and deliver EU withdrawal

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Thursday 03 October 2019 17:23
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Multiple Labour MPs have told The Independent they are prepared to support the Brexit agreement Theresa May hopes to bring back from Brussels, boosting the prime minister’s chances of forcing it through parliament.

The MPs include the first to state publicly that they will struggle to vote against a deal secured in Brussels if the alternative is a no-deal Brexit – even if, as expected, Jeremy Corbyn orders his party to oppose it.

They say that crashing out of the EU would be a disaster for their constituents, while also fearing a backlash from voters accusing them of blocking Brexit.

It comes as Ms May appears resigned to having to rely on Labour votes to secure parliament’s support for her deal in the face of staunch opposition from many of her own Eurosceptic backbenchers.

Labour MPs told The Independent that at least 15 could rebel against Mr Corbyn and back the government, which could be enough to tip the balance in the Commons in favour of the deal.

One prepared to go public, Gareth Snell, MP for Stoke Central, said: “If the deal is some sort of customs union, protection of the unity of the union and looking at a future trade deal, it would be very hard to justify why we’re not supporting that.”

Ruth Smeeth, Stoke North MP, said: “If the option is voting for the deal or voting for something that would mean no deal – well, I’m not prepared to vote for no-deal.”

Don Valley MP Caroline Flint said: “I believe if there is a reasonable deal that stops us crashing out with no deal, we shouldn’t rule it out.”

Speaking to Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Ms Flint added: "The problem is, we are now - those of us who want to get a deal - are sometimes stuck between a rock and a hard place between hardline Brexiteers who think we can waltz off without a deal and some hardline Remainers who, for their own reasons don't want a deal because they want to overturn the referendum results."

Asked about speculation around 30 Labour MPs would be prepared to vote for a deal if it meant defying the whip, she said: "I'm really not sure, but I think if a reasonable deal is on the table the question for some of my Labour colleagues is 'why wouldn't you support a deal, why would you stand along (with) Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg who want us to crash out without a deal?"

If 15 Labour MPs put their support behind the deal, the prime minister could afford a Tory rebellion of more than 20, presuming she is able to keep the Democratic Unionist Party on her side.

Eurosceptic Tories claim they have at least 40 MPs ready to vote down the deal, although the government hopes to whittle down that number when pressure is applied.

Many Labour MPs in Leave-supporting constituencies feel they cannot both vote against Ms May’s deal while convincingly opposing a no-deal exit.

They are torn between, on the one hand, party members who will be furious if they help prop up a Tory prime minister and, on the other, constituents who will not forgive them if they vote in a way that could appear to be frustrating Britain’s exit from the EU.

“We can’t vote against the deal but also oppose no-deal without it looking very much like we’re voting against Brexit,” another said. “That isn’t an option.”

Mr Snell added: “I’m quite clear that no-deal would be an absolute disaster and therefore to avoid a no-deal outcome we’ve got to be open to supporting a deal that’s presented.

“I’m not wedded to opposing a deal just because it comes from the government. If the deal is as May has been suggesting then it would be difficult for me to justify to myself not strongly considering supporting it, if the alternative is crashing out without a deal.

Labour is expected to instruct its MPs to vote against Ms May’s deal, which it will say does not meet the six strict tests the party has set out.

However, one MP said: “Everyone knows the six tests were designed to never be met.”

Mr Corbyn and his team are likely to warn MPs how members will react if they vote with the government and help the Conservatives stay in power.

They will tell MPs that voting down Ms May’s deal would either force her to return to Brussels to renegotiate a softer Brexit, or trigger a general election – a suggestion some MPs have already dismissed.

“The suggestion that parliament could somehow force her to go crawling back to Brussels, or that Labour could force a general election, is nonsense,” one said.

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Another said Labour could not credibly oppose a deal that had the support of all 27 other EU countries. “The idea the Labour Party should block a deal that is backed by the likes of Merkel, Macron and the rest of the 27 is ludicrous.”

The Labour leadership is understood to believe the fact that hardline Tory Eurosceptics will join them in the division lobby to vote against the deal will invalidate accusations the party is frustrating Brexit – a confidence not shared by many of the party’s MPs.

Potential rebels have increasingly found an unlikely ally in John McDonnell, who, MPs said, appears to be increasingly concerned about the risks of Labour being seen to vote against Brexit.

MPs dismissed reports that up to 30 Labour MPs could vote with the government and suggested the number of potential rebels has been intentionally inflated by Conservative whips in an attempt to convince Tory Eurosceptics that Ms May is not reliant on their support.

And despite reports that Downing Street is actively lobbying Labour rebels with a view to cobbling together a majority for Ms May’s deal, none of the Labour MPs spoken to by The Independent said they had been approached by Tory whips.

Several Labour frontbenchers are understood to be considering abstaining from the vote, effectively boosting Ms May’s chances of securing a parliamentary majority. They believe they could do this without having to resign from their positions.

One said: “I’m definitely not going to vote against the deal. If it’s a choice between a deal or no deal, the deal has got to be really bad for me to vote it down.

“No-deal is the worst possible option for my constituents. I’m pragmatic about it. If it’s something like Chequers I could support that. Several of us would likely abstain.”

Some MPs in Leave areas are banking on a constitutional get-out clause that would give them the cover to vote for a deal. While the Labour leadership and pro-EU Tory MPs are united in insisting the choice before parliament cannot be between Ms May’s deal and no deal, some Labour MPs believe that is exactly the decision they face.

Some have even sought the advice of constitutional experts in the hope of seeking credible confirmation that there would be no parliamentary mechanism for avoiding a no-deal outcome if Ms May’s deal is rejected. That would give them the justification they need to allow them to vote with the government.

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