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29 June 2017

Jeremy Corbyn sacks three shadow ministers as Labour splits over EU single market

In defiance of the party whip, 49 Labour MPs backed Chuka Umunna's Queen's Speech amendment.

By George Eaton

Different parliament, same split. Though Labour has recently been more united than at any point since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, its European schism resurfaced today. 49 MPs, including four shadow ministers (Ruth Cadbury, Andy Slaughter, Catherine West and Daniel Zeichner), defied the whip to vote for Chuka Umunna’s Queen’s Speech amendment backing Single Market and Customs Union membership (which was defeated by 322 votes to 101). 

With Labour MPs ordered by the leadership to abstain, Zeichner resigned and the other three frontbench rebels were sacked. While the party’s manifesto called for the UK to retain the “exact same benefits” provided by the Single Market and the Customs Union, it fell short of advocating full membership.

The rebellion represents one of the biggest of Corbyn’s leadership (52 voted not to trigger Article 50 in February). But for various reasons, there is no PLP majority for single market membership. Many northern and midlands MPs, such as Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint, oppose membership on the grounds that it would make it impossible to limit free movement (a claim some contest). Those on the party’s left, such as John McDonnell, Ian Lavery and Corbyn himself, reject the single market as a Thatcherite relic. Finally, other Labour and Conservative MPs believe that the referendum gave the “hard Brexiteers” a mandate which they must respect.

The irony is that a majority of MPs (including many in the cabinet) recognise that it is in Britain’s economic interests to remain in the single market but, for political reasons, they are unwilling to take back control. Labour Remainers believe, as one told me, that it was essential to keep the debate alive and not to “betray” the many pro-European voters who backed the party at the election. “If we don’t make the argument, who the bloody hell will?” an MP reflected.

The full amendment read: “At end add ‘but respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech does not rule out withdrawal from the EU without a deal, guarantee a Parliamentary vote on any final outcome to negotiations, set out transitional arrangements to maintain jobs, trade and certainty for business, set out proposals to remain within the Customs Union and Single Market, set out clear measures to respect the competencies of the devolved administrations, and include clear protections for EU nationals living in the UK now, including retaining their right to remain in the UK, and reciprocal rights for UK citizens.’.”

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