A group of rebel Labour MPs are defying Jeremy Corbyn’s orders to boycott cross-party discussions aimed at finding a Brexit plan that might command a majority in the House of Commons.
Corbyn sent an email to all his MPs yesterday telling them not to meet with government ministers until the prime minister accepted his pre-conditions for talks.
The Labour leader wrote: “I have been absolutely clear that any starting point for talks about breaking the Brexit deadlock must be on the provision that that the threat of a disastrous ‘no deal’ outcome is ruled out.”
He expects “colleagues to respect that condition and refrain from engagement … until no deal is taken off the table”, the email continued.
But Corbyn’s directive appears to have gone unheeded in some quarters, with a number of Labour MPs opting to meet with ministers to open cross-party Brexit talks following the resounding rejection of Theresa May’s proposed deal earlier this week.
The rebels include Lucy Powell and Stephen Kinnock, “who both advocate a Norway-style deal keeping the UK in the customs union”, along with outspoken Corbyn critic John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, reports The Daily Telegraph.
Prominent Labour backbenchers Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn have also met with the Government, but “said they had attended the meeting in their capacity as chairs of cross-parliamentary committees”, says the BBC.
Following the talks, a defiant Cooper said: “We want to see if the Government is actually prepared to make some changes.”
She added: “The most important thing now is that the Government actually listens and it doesn’t just think that a defeat that was that huge can simply be dismissed.”
The Independent reports that when asked whether Corbyn should be taking part in the discussions, Benn said: “That is a decision for Jeremy to take. He’s demonstrating that it’s not just the prime minister who can be stubborn.”
Other Labour colleagues were less equivocal. Former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie told the Telegraph that his top priority was my “country and my constituents”.
“I think we have to rise above short-term party political calculations and put the country’s interests first,” he continued. “Now is the time to show that you’re not driven solely by ideology and you’re prepared to engage in dialogue.”
That sentiment was echoed by former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who told Sky News that Brexit was “above party politics” and that he would continue to engage with ministers and MPs from across the Commons.
The growing dissent could pose longer term problems for Corbyn, with the potential threat of “a political realignment if moderate Labour MPs use the People’s Vote as the nucleus of a new centrist party”, says The Economist.
Speaking at a rally in Hastings on Thursday morning, Corbyn accused May of using the invitation of talks as a “stunt” to run down the clock, adding that it was not a “serious attempt to engage”.
The PM has said that she is sticking to the “principles” behind her Withdrawal Agreement, which include taking control of money, borders and laws, and having an independent trade policy.
May said that her door is open for talks with the Labour leader, but told him that his demand is “an impossible condition, because it is not within the Government’s power to rule out no deal”.