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24 November 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 12:06pm

How will Labour vote on a possible Brexit deal?

There's no deal yet to approve, but the Labour Party is already leaning towards voting for a Brexit deal that comes before the House of Commons.

By Ailbhe Rea

How will Labour vote on a possible Brexit deal? The issue that has dogged the party since the referendum result in 2016 rears its head yet again, as discussions begin within Labour about how it should vote on any deal negotiated between the UK and EU ahead of the end of the transition period. There’s no deal to vote on as of yet, and there may not be one, but the conversation began in earnest at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) last night.

Given the size of the Conservative majority, and the manifesto commitment that those Conservative MPs made to vote for a Brexit deal, any decision Labour takes on the issue is, in many ways, academic. If it gets to the point where the government brings back a Brexit deal to the House of Commons, it is guaranteed to pass with Conservative votes, barring a truly extraordinary chain of events. That means no deal will be effectively off the table and the deal will pass, regardless of whether Labour votes against, in favour, or abstains. 

But, as Labour has demonstrated with difficult and at times controversial decisions over voting on issues of national security, the way the party votes does matter a great deal in terms of the message it sends to the country about its position on an issue. It has to vote as though its votes matter, in other words. 

With that in mind, Rachel Reeves (who, as Michael Gove’s opposite number as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, takes responsibility for the Brexit and outsourcing briefs) led a discussion about all three options at last night’s PLP. She emphasised that she and the Labour leader intend to look at any deal in detail before reaching a conclusion, and sources emphasise that a decision hasn’t been made, but the bottom line of the discussion is that “at the moment, the inclination across the board, led by Keir, is leaning towards voting for a deal, rather than abstaining”, per a Labour source. 

[see also: The UK must embrace a European future or accept isolation and decline]

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Even Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, and who have grave concerns about the likely content of a hard Brexit deal and its impact on Northern Ireland in particular, appreciate the strategic case for the Labour leadership acting like a government in waiting on this issue, as with all issues that come before the Commons. One MP who has “been fighting tooth and nail against this bad deal”, who hasn’t ruled out abstaining, notes that there is a “strong view to unite behind decisive leadership”. That would mean a firm decision on the deal, voting either for or against, rather than abstaining, with MPs rowing in behind the leadership’s decision with minimal rebellion.

The case, as it was made last night, is that abstaining on a deal could look like a vote in favour of no deal, while a vote to support the deal indicates that Labour is listening to voters and wants to draw a line under the Brexit issue. Sarah Owen, Margaret Beckett and Liam Byrne are all understood to have spoken in favour of this approach, expressing concerns about the impact that no deal could have on manufacturing in their constituencies. The deal should also, Reeves argued, be viewed as a base from which things could be improved, rather than a final settlement.

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But it will still be a bitter pill to swallow for Labour MPs in strongly pro-Remain constituencies with serious concerns about Brexit full stop. Recent polling indicates that voters in pro-Remain London constituencies would understand if their MPs voted in favour of a deal, and the Labour leadership clearly hopes that this, and the strategic case to draw a line under Brexit as a united party, will be enough to convince them. But these MPs say privately that the only thing that will make up their minds will be speaking to their own constituents and seeing the detail of the deal. A Labour split on the issue is still a possibility.