The former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has privately warned party colleagues that backing a Brexit deal could be politically “lethal”, saying the prime minister must be made to “own” it.
With talks entering their final crucial days, opposition parties are turning their minds to whether they will support the government if it clinches a deal and then brings it to the House of Commons.
During discussion on the Labour peers’ WhatsApp group about the issue, Lord Kinnock said: “If Labour supports the ‘deal’, all our future justified criticisms will be rebuffed by ‘but you voted for this!’ and, because it will be true, it will be lethal.”
Instead Kinnock supported the view expressed privately by some shadow cabinet members, who would prefer to see Labour abstain – a decision that would be unlikely to prevent the deal going through.
“We must abstain and explain that this is the rational course when faced with a damaging ‘yes’ and a disastrous ‘no’,” Kinnock told colleagues. “[Boris] Johnson will get his ‘deal’ through the Commons anyway and he must OWN the outcome.”
Cabinet Office officials have been working on a future relationship bill that could potentially be quickly passed through both houses of parliament in the event of agreement.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is minded to whip his MPs to vote in favour – perhaps after trying to amend the legislation. He believes a no-deal exit would be disastrous and wants to send a message to Brexit voters who rejected the party at last December’s elections that Labour has heard them.
But that has raised concerns among some shadow cabinet members and scores of backbench MPs.
The Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats have not yet made a final decision on how they will vote, but one concern on the Labour benches is the risk that with critical Holyrood elections coming up next year, a vote for a deal would allow Labour to be lumped together with the Tories.
As Labour leader, Kinnock lost the 1992 general election to John Major, despite the economy having suffered a deep recession.
It is understood Kinnock’s intervention was part of a lively discussion prompted by a Guardian article written by Peter Mandelson.
Lord Mandelson said: “Boris Johnson is putting Britain at a massive and permanent disadvantage in relation to its biggest export market.”
He also conceded that he and fellow proponents of a “people’s vote” had made a softer Brexit deal less likely – and urged Labour not to fall out over the issue.
Labour peers were addressed on Wednesday by Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, who is liaising with the party on Starmer’s behalf about Brexit and has held a string of meetings with different groupings.
Johnson’s approach involves leaving both the EU single market and the customs union, which will entail a significant increase in bureaucracy.
Starmer whipped his MPs to abstain in this week’s vote on coronavirus restrictions, in which more than 50 Conservative MPs opposed their own government’s plans.
Labour wanted to see more business support for the areas under the tightest rules, and greater powers given to local leaders to determine how their areas tackle the pandemic.
But Johnson then attacked Starmer during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. “Captain Hindsight is rising up the ranks and has become General Indecision,” said the prime minister.
Divisions over Brexit dogged Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. A well-organised backbench caucus, as well as several shadow cabinet members including Starmer, pressed him towards rejecting Theresa May’s deal and ultimately accepting the need for Labour to support a referendum.
A Lib Dem spokesperson said: “In the final hours before a deadline, we still don’t know what Brexit Boris Johnson will present to MPs and the country. However, the Liberal Democrats have always been clear we will not vote in favour of any deal that is destructive for British jobs, security or our environment.”