Labour's 'fraying' Brexit compromise shows PM Theresa May a path to victory

Prime Minister Theresa May now knows there are at least 14 Labour MPs who either believe in Brexit or see the referendum result as an instruction from their voters.
Prime Minister Theresa May now knows there are at least 14 Labour MPs who either believe in Brexit or see the referendum result as an instruction from their voters.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - One of Theresa May's most important victories on Tuesday (Jan 29) night was to block what she described as a "deeply misguided" attempt by Parliament to wrest control of the Brexit process from her government.

But the voting lists for the 321 to 298 defeat of Labour MP Yvette Cooper's amendment reveal that its significance is deeper - and it could show a way for the Prime Minister to use opposition Labour lawmakers to win Parliament's support for her Brexit deal.

There were 14 rank-and-file Labour MPs who defied their leadership's instructions and opposed the proposal - handing victory to the Prime Minister. Eight members of Mr Jeremy Corbyn's front bench team, who are supposed to follow party orders, also abstained.

Mr Corbyn's spokesman refused to say if the leader was disappointed with those who disobeyed, and said there had been "no nods or winks" to allow them to do so. It was clear, though, that any disciplinary action by party enforcers is not going to be severe.

Labour has been trying to strike a balance between its members, the majority of whom want to stay in the European Union, and Leave-supporting voters it needs to hold on to in key districts. The party is united behind the compromise thrashed out last year, the leader's office said, and there was always likely to be some "fraying around the edges".

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But that fraying is all Mrs May needed on Tuesday in the tight margins of the House of Commons.

The irony is that last year, some of the more hardline Brexiteers in Mrs May's Conservative Party warned the Prime Minister not to try to get her deal through Parliament with Labour votes. Tuesday's results could change their tune.

 
 
 

And Mrs May, who is courting opposition lawmakers with promises on post-Brexit workers' rights and environmental protection, now knows there are at least 14 Labour MPs who either believe in Brexit or see the referendum result as an instruction from their voters.

"It is the responsibility of MPs of all parties to work together to produce the best outcome possible," said Ms Caroline Flint, one of the Tuesday rebels. "Without Labour, there is no deal that can be passed in the Commons."

Mrs May knows this. Her Conservatives do not have a majority in Parliament, and even with her partners in the Democratic Unionist Party, she can only barely win votes. The Times newspaper on Thursday (Jan 31) reported that the premier is trying to woo support from Labour lawmakers with cash injections into the communities they represent.

Tuesday evening showed that between seven and 17 on Mrs May's side will rebel in a pro-EU direction. But when previous rebellions are taken into account, at least 25 Labour MPs have shown that they are willing to ignore Mr Corbyn's instructions and vote for aspects of Brexit. That could be enough to see the Prime Minister through.

It may be the premier does not even need support from Labour rebels. ITV's Robert Peston said on Wednesday (Jan 30) in a Facebook post that people close to Mr Corbyn say they could envisage a situation in coming weeks where it will become official party policy to vote for a Brexit plan.