Labour’s divisions over Brexit were laid bare as four MPs quit frontbench positions and a fifth resigned as a shadow ministerial aide to vote against a second referendum.
Shadow ministers Yvonne Fovargue, Emma Lewell-Buck and Justin Madders, whip Stephanie Peacock and parliamentary private secretary Ruth Smeeth all resigned over the issue.
Labour’s official policy is to keep the option of a second referendum on the table and Jeremy Corbyn’s MPs had been ordered to abstain when the issue was pushed to a vote in the Commons.
But a total of 24 backed the call to delay Brexit in order to hold a second referendum, with 17 opposing it.
Ms Peacock resigned from the whips office, saying she wanted to “respect the result of the 2016 vote” and her constituents in Barnsley East would expect her to “honour that promise”.
Ms Smeeth resigned as parliamentary private secretary to Mr Watson, saying she had a duty to “support the will of my constituents” in Leave-supporting Stoke-on-Trent North.
It is with deep regret I tonight resigned from Labour’s front bench, because I believe we should respect the result of the 2016 vote to leave the European Union: pic.twitter.com/oPGwMp974U
— Stephanie Peacock (@Steph_Peacock) March 14, 2019
Shadow communities minister Ms Fovargue, shadow health minister Mr Madders and shadow children and families minister Mrs Lewell-Buck also defied the whip.
The amendment, pushed by The Independent Group’s Sarah Wollaston, was overwhelmingly defeated by 334 votes to 85 as the bulk of the Labour Party stayed away from the voting lobbies.
In her resignation letter, Ms Peacock told Mr Corbyn: “I was elected on the Labour manifesto that pledged to respect the result of the 2016 EU referendum. The people of Barnsley elected me to honour that promise and that is what I did tonight.
“I felt in all good conscience I had to vote tonight to clearly rule out any form of second referendum.
“I believe the people spoke in 2016 and we need to enact their decision.”
I've resigned from Labour's front bench this evening in order to vote against a second referendum. This was a difficult decision but I have a duty to support the will of my constituents. We need to leave, and leave with a deal that works for the Potteries https://t.co/yOtP1jWsmS
— Ruth Smeeth MP (@RuthSmeeth) March 14, 2019
Ms Smeeth said: “This was a difficult decision but I have a duty to support the will of my constituents. We need to leave, and leave with a deal that works for the Potteries.”
Mrs Lewell-Buck’s former boss, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, said she had “made a principled stance and did what she believes is right by her constituents”.
Mr Corbyn said: “I would like to thank Yvonne, Emma, Ruth, Justin and Stephanie for their service while on the Labour frontbench.
“I understand the difficulties MPs have felt representing the views of their constituents during this process.”
— Emma Lewell-Buck MP (@EmmaLewellBuck) March 14, 2019
Meanwhile, the Labour hierarchy – Mr Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, chief whip Nick Brown and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer – held talks with two backbenchers who have put forward a plan to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal in exchange for a referendum.
A Labour Party spokesman said they had a “useful and constructive discussion” with Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson “as part of Labour’s engagement with MPs across Parliament to find a practical solution to break the Brexit deadlock”.
In the Commons, Mr Corbyn said: “I reiterate my conviction that a deal can be agreed based on our alternative plan that can command support across the House.
“I also reiterate our support for a People’s Vote – not as a political point-scoring exercise but as a realistic option to break the deadlock.”
The issue has deeply split Labour, with MPs representing Leave-voting areas unhappy with the prospect of being seen to betray their constituents while those in Remain-supporting areas have been under pressure to do more to oppose Brexit.