LONDON — Labour Party Deputy Leader Tom Watson has indicated that shadow cabinet ministers may not be expected to quit their positions if they vote against the Brexit bill currently being debated in Parliament.
In a previously unpublished interview, Watson tells journalist Ben Gartside that shadow ministers will be expected to obey the three-line-whip imposed by leader Jeremy Corbyn however “unique circumstances” means rebel MPs will be shown an extra degree of sympathy.
Asked whether he thinks it’s a necessity for shadow ministers to go if they vote against the invoking of Article 50, the MP for West Bromwich East said:
“Well what we’ve said on that is that these are unique circumstances, where we’ve had a referendum, a brutal instrument, that only allows a binary yes or no decision, where there is no room for complexity or nuance in the outcome, and also measure how each individual constituent votes. So we’re very sympathetic for colleagues who feel they have to vote in the interest of their own constituency on this one.
“Obviously even though the Labour Party was pro-remain and we remain strongly pro-European, we are democrats and we respect the outcome of the referendum. Our shadow cabinet has taken a position, it’s right we have a whipped vote.”
He added: “But I don’t want those frontbenchers who feel that they have to take a counter-view, feel that their contribution to frontbench life won’t be lost in the months and years ahead.”
Pushed on whether shadow ministers who defy the three-line-whip would be required to leave, he said:
“We expect people to vote for the three-line whip, party discipline will be imposed by our chief whip [Nick Brown], and the leader of the party will deal with that.
“But we will be sensitive and realise that these are unique circumstances.”
Labour frontbench Brexit rebels may be able to stay
A spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn indicated on Wednesday that while shadow cabinet members who defy the whip will have to resign, frontbenchers who are not in the shadow cabinet may be able to stay.
“Jeremy said at the weekend that nobody who votes against the whip can stay in the shadow cabinet and apart from that anything else will be dealt with in due course,” they said.
When pushed on whether that meant frontbenchers may be able to stay in their posts, they replied: “What Jeremy’s said publicly relates to the Shadow Cabinet members.”
They added that while a decision had not yet been taken by the Shadow Cabinet on whether MPs will be whipped to vote in favour of the final reading of the Brexit bill, Labour remained committed not to blocking Article 50.
“We will not block or frustrate the passage of the invoking of Article 50.”
Corbyn has already suffered two resignations from his frontbench over the issue. Jo Stevens MP was the first shadow cabinet members to resign at the weekend over her refusal to follow the party line and back the Brexit bill which would allow the government to trigger Article 50 — the formal mechanism of initiating Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, has also quit her frontbench position, while whips, Thangam Debbonaire and Jeff Smith, have said they will not be voting in favour of the bill. Clive Lewis and Rachell Maskell are also considering voting against it. 19 Labour MPs are backing an amendment calling for the bill to be thrown out of Parliament altogether.
Corbyn told ITV’s Robert Peston last week that it would “not be possible” for any shadow frontbencher who defies the three-line-whip to continue in their role. However, his deputy Watson appears to have taken a softer position.
Watson’s remarks come as MPs take part in a two-day debate on whether Theresa May should be given approval to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Corbyn has vowed to not block Article 50 but says Labour will push for amendments including protection for workers’ rights, environmental regulations, and unfiltered single market access.
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