Labour leader Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds are at odds over how the UK’s main opposition party should vote if Boris Johnson strikes a Brexit trade deal with the EU in the coming days.
Sir Keir has indicated that the leadership will whip the party’s MPs to back a deal if it comes to a vote in the House of Commons — given that the alternative is a more damaging no-deal severing of ties with the bloc.
But some colleagues have warned that doing so could tarnish Sir Keir’s reputation because he opposed Brexit in the run-up to the 2019 general election, citing what happened to former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg when he changed his stance on student tuition fees a decade ago.
Ms Dodds is among a number of high-profile members of the shadow cabinet who argue that Labour should abstain — so it cannot be blamed for any economic fallout in the coming months.
Although the shadow chancellor, who is MP for Oxford East, refused to comment, one ally said: “She has made it clear she doesn’t want the party to back a deal, she’s a former MEP who represents a very Remain seat.”
Giving a speech about financial services at Bloomberg on Wednesday, she said that if Mr Johnson’s government did strike a deal it would not be the deal that anyone had hoped for. “If we do get a deal it will be as thin as gruel.”
The long-running Brexit talks are thought likely to reach a denouement within days, although there is still no guarantee that a deal will be struck. If one is agreed, MPs would then vote on the future relationship bill.
Other senior figures arguing for Labour to abstain include Emily Thornberry, shadow trade secretary, as well as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson and shadow justice secretary David Lammy.
The leadership is braced for the resignation of a “handful” of junior shadow ministers in heavily Remain constituencies if they are forced to vote for any government Brexit deal, according to senior party figures.
“The problem with backing the deal is that it will tie our hands, it means that if and when things go wrong we will be an opposition party that is unable to oppose because this bloody thing will have our signature on it as well,” said one shadow minister.
Yet several other senior figures in the shadow cabinet are firmly backing Sir Keir because they fear the repercussions of not doing so in their former heartlands in northern England — so-called red wall constituencies that the Conservatives won in the 2019 election and which voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
They include Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary, Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth.
Liam Byrne, a shadow culture minister who is Labour’s candidate for West Midlands mayor next year, said it was in the national interest to back a Brexit deal.
“There isn’t a choice between a fantasy deal and no deal, it’s this deal versus no deal, and we will not have a manufacturing industry left unless there is a deal,” he said.
“If Labour wants to rebuild the red wall then we need to show people that we hear them and that we’ve understood them and we’re not going to stand in the way of getting a deal.”
The split threatens to reignite the painful row that dogged the party from the referendum through to December’s election, where it lost dozens of seats in Leave areas after backing a second referendum.
While many current and former Labour voters backed Leave in 2016, the membership is heavily skewed towards a pro-EU tendency.
Neil Coyle, MP for Bermondsey, said: “Giving Boris Johnson a multi-hundred majority for a deal that is not what he promised 12 months ago is just not palatable.”
Anna Turley, a former Labour MP who lost her Redcar seat in December, said Sir Keir’s plan to back a Brexit deal had been “greeted with horror” by members. Ms Turley said the party should not be “meekly tagging along with a historic act of national self-harm” given the potential economic damage from leaving the single market and customs union.
“He can abstain,” said Mike Buckley, director of Labour for a European Future. “That would mean that he doesn’t end up co-owning it.”
Ms Dodds said on Wednesday that the leadership would look “very very carefully” at any deal before making a final voting decision. But MPs believe Sir Keir is determined to back a deal.
One Labour MP said that if the leader did not back the deal he would look like a “congenital abstainer”. “It’s in the public interest to get a deal done, that may not be the deal we would have liked negotiated in the first half of last year but it’s still better than no deal.”
Get alerts on Labour Party UK when a new story is published