Europhile Labour MPs expressed fury on Wednesday after party leader Jeremy Corbyn signalled there would be no disciplinary action against eight shadow ministers who failed to back an effort to stop a no-deal Brexit.
In the House of Commons votes on Theresa May’s Brexit plan B on Tuesday, Mr Corbyn ordered his MPs to support an amendment by former Labour minister Yvette Cooper that proposed delaying Britain’s departure from the EU so as to minimise the risk of a no-deal Brexit.
But 14 Labour MPs rebelled by voting against Ms Cooper’s amendment, and 11 abstained — including eight shadow ministers — as the Commons rejected her initiative.
The outcome highlighted how rebel Labour MPs — including Eurosceptics and those representing Leave-backing constituencies — could potentially play an important role in Mrs May’s efforts to get a tweaked Brexit deal approved by parliament after the Commons emphatically rejected her withdrawal agreement this month.
Mrs May is trying to woo Labour MPs partly by promising to transfer European laws on workers rights and environmental protections into UK law after Brexit.
One rebel Labour MP who rejected Ms Cooper’s amendment said the party whips overseeing voting had mounted a “very liberal” operation on Tuesday, adding: “When I told them I might vote for the May deal two weeks ago, no one said anything, and this week I haven’t heard from the whips at all . . . not one peep.”
Many Europhile Labour MPs were angry about the lack of repercussions for the eight shadow ministers, with some suggesting Mr Corbyn’s office had quietly given them the nod to abstain.
“People are very hacked off that shadow ministers can apparently do what they like and not be punished,” said one.
Ian Murray, a pro-EU former member of the shadow cabinet, said: “I have been hearing from dozens of colleagues . . . who are hugely surprised that shadow ministers are allowed to break the whip without sanctions.”
A Labour party spokesman refused to answer whether the abstentions by the eight shadow ministers on Ms Cooper’s amendment would result in punishment. He said it was a matter for the party whips rather than Mr Corbyn’s office.
Mr Corbyn, a longstanding Eurosceptic, said he was “very disappointed” in the MPs who failed to support Ms Cooper’s amendment but was more vague about potential disciplinary action. “We’ll be having discussions with them,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn held talks with Mrs May about how to break the Brexit deadlock at Westminster.
He refused her initial invitation two weeks ago — after she saw off a Labour-inspired vote of no confidence in her government following the Commons’ rejection of her withdrawal agreement — on the grounds she would not rule out a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Corbyn had been criticised privately by some Labour MPs for rejecting Mrs May’s initial offer.
After the 45 minute discussion between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn on Wednesday, there were few clues about either shifting ground.
He said he had set out Labour’s case for a “comprehensive customs union with the EU”, adding: “She listened.”
But the prime minister’s spokesman rejected Labour’s proposal for a permanent customs union, saying: “The prime minister believes that the UK must be able to have its own independent trade policy and that is not possible if you’re a member of the customs union.”
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