Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick comes out for the Brexit deal – but who will follow him?

The Poplar and Limehouse MP’s intervention is significant – but rather than making Theresa May’s life easier, it shows why Labour MPs won't deliver her victory.

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Theresa May’s belated appeal to Labour ahead of the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement has won its first convert: Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse.

“I’m not quite there yet, but I’m not far away,” was how Fitzpatrick put it in the Commons this afternoon. He criticised his party’s approach to the vote, complaining that its six tests had been designed to be failed, and argued – as Tory MP George Freeman did yesterday – that voting for Theresa May’s deal was the the “only real alternative on the table” to a no-deal scenario given the shortness of time available before 29 March.

Other Labour MPs are wont to make the same argument in private and some will no doubt follow Fitzpatrick before next Tuesday’s vote. They say that time is too short to risk voting down the only thing that is guaranteed to stop a no-deal scenario in the hope or expectation of a better solution emerging thereafter.

But what unites this relatively small group of Labour MPs is that they, like Fitzpatrick, are unlikely to stand at the next election, either out of personal choice or because of the likelihood of their deselection; have defied the Labour whip to reject a softer form of Brexit than that proposed by the Prime Minister or opposition leadership, as Fitzpatrick did when he voted against EEA membership in June, or both.

There are only 15 MPs in the latter group and probably a similar number in the former; in other words, nowhere near enough to make up the votes the Prime Minister has haemorrhaged on her own side. What Fitzpatrick’s intervention illustrates is that May’s overtures – and the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration in their current shape – are still finding a naturally limited audience on the Labour benches.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.