Labour’s business spokesman stands down after finding himself in a dilemma over party’s three-line whip
Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South, has resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as the government’s Brexit bill was passed overwhelmingly by MPs, completing its passage through the House of Commons without a single amendment.
The historic bill was passed overwhelmingly, by 494 votes to 122, and will now pass to the House of Lords, where Labour and Liberal Democrat peers will press for concessions on key issues including the status of European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom.
But its emphatic passage through the Commons means that Theresa May appears to be on track to meet her self-imposed deadline of triggering article 50 – and starting the formal process to quit the EU – by the end of March.
A potential Conservative rebellion melted away, as the government made a series of tactical concessions to smooth the passage of the bill, including publishing a white paper setting out its negotiating priorities, and promising that MPs will be allowed to vote on the exit deal before their counterparts in the European parliament.
The bill’s passage through the Commons was hailed by Brexit supporters. Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who campaigned for decades for an EU referendum, said: “I never thought I’d see the day where the House of Commons overwhelmingly voted for Britain to leave the European Union.”
Brexit secretary David Davis said: “We’ve seen a historic vote tonight – a big majority for getting on with negotiating our exit from the EU and a strong, new partnership with its member states.”
Lewis was one of 52 Labour MPs who rebelled against Corbyn’s three-line whip to vote against the legislation, which authorises the government to trigger article 50 – the formal process for exiting the EU.
With his resignation as shadow business secretary, Lewis became the fourth shadow cabinet member to resign rather than vote in favour, the Labour MP Jo Stevens having resigned before the first vote on the bill took place.
Lewis represents Norwich South, a constituency that voted strongly to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum, and had been openly agonising about whether he could bring himself to support the legislation.
“When I became the MP for Norwich South, I promised my constituents I would be Norwich’s voice in Westminster, not Westminster’s voice in Norwich,” Lewis said. “I therefore cannot, in all good conscience, vote for something I believe will ultimately harm the city I have the honour to represent, love and call home.
“It is therefore with a heavy heart that I have decided to resign from the shadow cabinet.”
After stepping down Lewis thanked his supporters in a tweet referencing the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek, in which cadets are given a no-win scenario in order to test their strength of character.
Widely seen as a rising star on the left of the party, Lewis voted for the bill at its second reading of the bill last week; but made it clear that if Labour failed to amend the legislation he could not do so again. When the last potential amendment failed on Wednesday night, Labour issued a statement saying he had stepped down.
Some see him as a potential leadership candidate, who could act as a bridge between the Corbynite wing of the party, and the so-called soft left. But in the corridors MPs were being quite disparaging about what some called his “flip flopping” in recent days about whether he could back the bill.
As Lewis stood outside the lobbies one Tory MP asked if he’d put a suit on especially for the occasion given the heavy focus on his decision.
Corbyn said: “I would like to thank Clive for his work in the shadow cabinet, which has underlined what an asset he is to the Labour party and our movement.
“I understand the difficulties MPs representing constituencies which voted remain have in relation to the European Union withdrawal bill. MPs have a duty to represent their constituents as well as their party. However, the Labour party respects the outcome of the EU referendum, so we have asked all Labour MPs to vote for the bill at its third reading.”
Corbyn will have been relieved that the rebellion on his benches was only modestly larger than last week, at the bill’s second reading, when 47 MPs defied the party line, and there were three resignations from the front bench, including two shadow cabinet ministers, Dawn Butler and Rachael Maskell.
Diane Abbott, the Hackney North MP who was absent from last week’s second reading of the bill, citing a migraine, voted in favour of the bill, despite speculation that she was concerned about the reaction of her pro-remain constituents.
In her official response to the vote she said that while she accepted the result of the referendum, “this does not mean that we have to accept Brexit in the haphazard way in which it is being handed to us”.
Abbott said: “This passage of this bill has been a challenge for Labour. Our MPs represent the top six most passionately pro-leave constituencies, and the six most passionately pro-remain constituencies … I voted for the bill as a loyal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and a loyal member of the shadow cabinet.”
Abbott later said Brexit was not the leftwing idea imagined by Labour stalwart Tony Benn, but an “ugly” state of affairs more akin to the politics of US president Donald Trump.
She told BBC Newsnight: “I respect the result of the referendum and no-one wanted to thwart it in a perverse kind of way. But we need to be clear, this is not a Tony Benn Brexit, this is Donald Trump Brexit, and it’s got a very ugly side.”
Corbyn will now have to embark on a reshuffle, and must also decide how to treat frontbenchers outside the shadow cabinet, including three of his own whips, who rebelled. Labour sources said decisions would be made “in the next few days”.
MPs had earlier rejected a series of potential amendments to the legislation, many of them backed by Labour, on issues including tax havens, workers’ rights and the future of EU citizens living in the UK, repeatedly filing in and out of the Commons chamber to hold nine votes in quick succession.
A Liberal Democrat amendment calling for a referendum on the terms of Britain’s new relationship with the EU received the backing of just 33 MPs, 19 of them Labour: that included former leadership contender Owen Smith, and frontbenchers Catherine West and Daniel Zeichner.
Corbyn will now have to decide what to do about frontbenchers who refused to toe the line and voted against the bill for a second time, including three party whips, Thangam Debbonnaire, Jeff Smith and Vicky Foxcroft.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has repeatedly insisted the party must try to speak for both leavers and remainers, rather than trying to block Brexit.
Separately, Theresa May used an interview in the New Statesman to say that she hopes Labour voters will consider backing the Conservatives, as they focus on domestic reforms, as well as pressing ahead with Brexit.
“I hope there are Labour voters out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it.’ I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
May also rejected the claims of George Osborne, the former chancellor, who argued in the House of Commons last week that the government had failed to put the economy first by deciding to abandon single market membership and prioritise control of immigration.
“What we say is: what is the outcome that we want to achieve? And it is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union,” she said. “It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that.”
Source : theguardian.com