Keir Starmer has hit back at claims Labour will squander the chance to defeat the government over an amendment to keep the UK in a Norway-style deal after Brexit, saying his party was too divided to back it.
Labour’s frontbench has announced a new amendment to the EU withdrawal bill, which returns to the Commons next week, proposing “full access to the internal market of the European Union”.
However, the new amendment stops short of calling for the full single market membership sought by a vocal group of Labour MPs, after the Lords backed a Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).
The move was heralded by some as a significant shift by the Labour leadership towards a softer Brexit position, though several pro-EU Labour MPs said it would throw away the potential to defeat the government on the EEA amendment.
Pro-EU Conservative rebels are highly unlikely to back a Labour frontbench amendment, as opposed to a cross-party amendment led by backbenchers.
Starmer said Labour MPs such as Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna who backed the EEA amendment were well aware “it does not command support in their own party”.
In a tense meeting of backbench MPs a fortnight ago, several Labour MPs from leave-voting seats, including John Mann, Caroline Flint and John Spellar, made it clear they were opposed to Labour giving the EEA option its backing.
“I have been talking to colleagues for the last two or three weeks to try and gauge the views and I wish I could report we had complete unity on all amendments but we are not in that position,” Starmer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“They know as well as I do that their own colleagues in the party are indicating they are not prepared to vote for this. The only way we can win a vote is if we all vote together at the same time; that’s the only way we can defeat the government.”
In a coded warning to pro-EU Labour MPs, Starmer said there were “very divided views” in the party about a Norway-style model and he was “injecting some honesty about where we are in the party”.
“The pretence that everyone in the Labour party is in the same place on this, and therefore it is winnable, is a pretence and it really doesn’t help,” he said.