Keir Starmer CRISIS: Labour leader risks fury by reopening bitter Brexit divide in party

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The Remainer premier is said to be under pressure to throw his weight behind a deal from what’s left of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ – Labour MPs in Brexit heartlands. But Sir Keir, a former senior public prosecutor and Labour’s former Brexit spokesman, risks reopening wounds in a party – battling to make a comeback from the divides under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

This is because Labour MPs, who campaigned desperately for a People’s Vote following the UK’s decision to leave the Brussels club, are said to be furious over Sir Keir’s focus on the “fighting the last war” by reaching out to Brexit voters in the red wall.

They fear backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will leave them unable to hold the Tory Government to account over the consequences of leaving the bloc.

Labour sources said there are growing fears for the party’s reputation in Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will use the party’s backing of Brexit to her advantage.

An insider told The Guardian: “The SNP will be cock-a-hoop.”

Sir Keir is understood to be preparing to impose a three line whip in support of a deal, subject to negotiations, with Cabinet Office shadow minister Rachel Reeves, rejecting abstaining or giving MPs a free vote.

A former red wall MP told the paper: “I’m thoroughly p***ed off that the same group of people who were putting through clever technical bills a year ago are now the same people saying: ‘It’s very important that we support a deal.’

“When we were advocating a much softer deal, we were basically hung out as Tory sympathisers.”

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis warned backing a deal would “tie Labour’s hands for 10-15 years”.

He added: “It’s likely to be a framework deal, which means there will be massive holes in it. That’s in effect a near blank cheque, and it potentially ties Labour’s hands for 10-15 years.

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“It’s not just about our relationship with Europe, it’s about regulatory realignment and whether we end up with a neoliberal US-type economy, on workers’ rights, on the environment, on food standards. For people like me, it’s a point of principle.”

Mr Johnson is said to be working towards getting a deal before Parliament before Christmas in time for the transition period on December 31 before Britain finally unshackles itself from the bloc.

Sir Keir took a leading role in persuading the party to back a second referendum but said the lack of clarity over how Labour would campaign in such a vote had been damaging.

But despite pushing for a second Brexit referendum, he said the December election result had “blown away” that argument.

Labour suffered heavy losses at last year’s election, when the Tories won seats in the opposition’s heartlands with a promise to “get Brexit done” and by tapping into discontent with leftist then-leader Jeremy Corbyn.

After many Brexit supporters were wooed by Mr Johnson’s election message that only he could “get Brexit done”, Sir Keir drew a line under Labour’s often confusing position, saying the party was “not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe” and instead wanted a deal with the EU.

 

Turning to what he described as his anger against Mr Johnson’s “serial incompetence” over the coronavirus crisis and Brexit talks, Sir Keir also distanced himself from Mr Corbyn, saying Labour was becoming “a competent, credible opposition”.

Sir Keir, elected Labour leader in April, wants to win back many of the so-called ‘Red Wall’.

Michel Barnier arrived in London on Friday as he tries to secure a deal in talks with UK counterpart Lord David Frost.

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