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23 October 2019

Labour hasn’t sacked its Brexit rebels. Here’s why

Shadow minister Jo Platt has kept her frontbench job, despite voting for Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

By Patrick Maguire

Of the 19 Labour MPs who supported the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at second reading, one name stood out: Jo Platt, the only frontbencher among the rebels. 

Platt, a shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, defied a three line whip to vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit legislation – and has managed to keep her job. Labour sources confirm she will not be sacked.

She has since justified her decision on the grounds that she did not support the deal in its current form, and instead wanted to see it amended at committee stage. Like most of her fellow rebels, however, Platt did vote to block the government from ramming the legislation through in three days. 

But her rebellion on the second reading still raises an inevitable question: why has she avoided the sack? Other frontbenchers have been sacked – or were forced to resign – for defying the whip on far less momentous occasions. Take, for instance, the five frontbenchers – all of them, like Platt, members of the 2017 intake – who had to quit in order to vote for a pro-single market amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill last June. 

Briefing reporters in Westminster this afternoon, a Labour spokesman told reporters that Jeremy Corbyn had pursued a strategy of “persuasion” on Brexit. He added that any decision to discipline Platt – or not – was “a matter for the whips”. Her survival has delighted shadow cabinet ministers who are opposed to Labour’s shift to a second referendum. 

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But it will nonetheless infuriate Remainers in the parliamentary party, particularly those who have lost their own frontbench posts for rebelling on Brexit. They believe that Brexit rebellions are disciplined selectively – with only Remainers punished. “It’s almost as if LOTO doesn’t mind them doing it,” says one former shadow minister. Many MPs, particularly those MPs facing strong challenges from the Liberal Democrats, Greens or SNP, fear the political consequences of a light-touch approach to disciplining colleagues who defy the whip to facilitate Brexit rather than block or soften it.

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Yet Labour whips believe there is a clear incentive not to do so: damage limitation. Nick Brown, the chief, is of the view that threatening rebels with a binary choice between loyalty and a punishment of nuclear proportions, like withdrawal of the whip, is more likely to result in a breakdown of discipline and a bigger, more damaging rebellion than anything else. That is why, despite calls to do so from grassroots Corbynites, Labour have not followed the Tories in making examples of their Brexit rebels.