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18 October 2019

Will Labour MPs be deselected for backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal?

Momentum's Jon Lansman has warned would-be rebels that they will be barred from standing in the next election.

By Patrick Maguire

Labour MPs agonising over whether to support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal have had two pieces of good news of late. Many of them have sailed through their trigger ballots and are now secure as Labour candidates for the next general election. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has privately assured them that they will not lose the whip if they vote with the government tomorrow. 

Both add up to a licence to rebel. Winning reselection means one’s local party has next to no recourse to consequential punishment if one votes for a deal. Indeed, in many cases they have opted not to trigger MPs in the full knowledge that they might back Johnson. And the leadership’s aversion to deploying the nuclear option of parliamentary discipline  withdrawing the whip means they are doubly safe ahead of a general election. 

Jon Lansman, however, has other ideas. The Momentum founder, who sits on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee as a representative of constituency parties, has warned MPs who vote with the government tomorrow that they face deselection. “Johnson’s deal will be a wrecking ball through the lives & well-being of ordinary people across Britain,” he writes on Twitter. “If they do, the NEC will have no choice but to replace them with a new, socialist Labour candidate at the next general election.” Huda Elmi, who sits with Lansman on the NEC, endorses his view.

What is Lansman up to? He is not on the same page as Labour chief whip Nick Brown, whose team is of the view that such grave threats against MPs rarely produce the desired results just look at how many Tories defied similar warnings to rebel on the Benn Act last month. But he nonetheless believes he is speaking for many members. 

Lansman has the means to make good on his words in theory, at least. Deal-inclined MPs who have passed their trigger ballots are still vulnerable to deselection as candidates via two other avenues. The first is the withdrawal of the whip, which would bar them from membership of the PLP and thus disqualify them from standing. Corbyn has already ruled that out. Yet anyone wishing to run on a Labour ticket must also secure the endorsement of the NEC, as the party’s rulebook makes clear:

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The selection of a parliamentary candidate shall not be regarded as completed until the name of the member selected has been placed before a meeting of the NEC and her or his selection has been endorsed. Until such endorsement has been received the member shall not be introduced to the public as a prospective candidate.

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Whether there is an NEC majority to be found for Lansman’s zero-tolerance approach is another question entirely. But it is nonetheless a clear warning to would-be rebels: there will be no such thing as a free pass to vote for Johnson’s deal. “The membership are entitled to express their view,” says an NEC source. “Sometimes you need both a carrot and a stick.”