Sir Keir Starmer saw front bench resignations and rebellions within the Labour Party as almost a fifth of his MPs ignored orders to support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
It came despite the party leader telling his MPs that while the Government’s agreement was “thin” with “many flaws”, it was better than the alternative of leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union with no deal.
Helen Hayes and Tonia Antoniazzi, two junior shadow ministers, resigned from the front bench as they said they could not support the deal. Only one Labour MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, defied the whips to vote against it, while another 36 abstained.
While Sir Keir issued a warning about the repercussions of not supporting the legislation to enact the post-transition period treaty, which was approved by 521 to 73 – a majority 448 – in the Commons, it is understood that there will be no disciplinary measures for backbenchers who defied the whip because they are not bound by collective responsibility.
Ahead of the vote, the Labour told MPs that “those that vote ‘no’ are voting for no deal”. He said: “This is the nub of it: those voting ‘no’ today want ‘yes’. They want others to save them from their own vote.
“Voting ‘no’, wanting ‘yes’, that’s the truth of the situation and that’s why my party has taken a different path.”
Sir Keir said he would have negotiated a “better” deal than Mr Johnson, saying that “when the default is no deal it’s not a mark of how pro-European you are to reject implementing this treaty”.
He said Labour would vote to implement the treaty in order “to avoid no deal and to put in place a floor from which we can build a strong future relationship with the EU”, warning that British businesses will face “an avalanche of checks” under the deal and criticising the SNP for hoping others do the “right thing” and vote in favour of implementation.
Kevin Brennan, the MP for Cardiff West, was the first Labour backbencher to signal intent to rebel during the debate as he dismissed the deal as “a failure”. Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, called it “a wrecking ball in the name of sovereignty”.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, condemned the deal as “an act of economic vandalism” and attacked Sir Keir for failing to oppose it, saying: “I am sad to say that the official Opposition has been missing in action. I can understand that this might be politically pragmatic for Labour, but it definitely isn’t politically principled.”
Meanwhile, in his New Year message to the nation Sir Keir said that while 2020 “has reminded us just how uncertain life can be”, there remained “reasons to be optimistic” in 2021.
He cited the distribution of the vaccine, the fact that the economy can start growing, businesses trading and people being able to spend time with their loved ones again as reasons to be positive. “When this crisis ends, and it will end, we will rebuild our country, together,” he said.