At least eight members of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet have privately expressed doubts about Labour’s strategy of backing any Brexit deal secured by Boris Johnson, the Guardian understands.
Starmer is expected to face down calls on Tuesday for Labour to abstain in a vote on any Brexit deal, and whip in favour of backing it despite the risk of a backbench rebellion.
MPs had been contacting Starmer’s office and whips over the weekend, warning of a potential exodus of members otherwise loyal to the Labour leader. Starmer has committed to keenly scrutinise a deal – if one can be secured with the EU – but is understood to believe that nothing has fundamentally changed to shift his thinking.
The prime minister is to travel to Brussels for a meeting with the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in the “coming days” in the latest attempt to break the impasse.
The shadow cabinet is due to discuss its position on Tuesday. The timing of the meeting was drawn up in the belief the two sides would have clinched a deal in advance.
Those who are nervous about backing a deal include MPs who have previously been vocally pro-remain, including the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, and others such as Bridget Phillipson, Jo Stevens and Emily Thornberry.
One shadow cabinet minister said there was a feeling that Starmer’s mind could still be changed, though other Labour sources said it was unlikely. “Until now it has felt like a fait accompli but now the discussion is out in the open,” the shadow cabinet minister said. “This is a trap that we can avoid, we are not going to get credit from the rightwing media for it. But it is a hard conversation to have because no one wants to make life any more difficult for Keir.”
MPs have been divided after a private polling briefing from BritainThinks, which suggested “red wall” seats would not forgive Labour MPs if they failed to back a Brexit deal. While that has convinced some waverers, others believe the polling could not capture the nuances of the question and that Labour may be hamstrung for years with regard to criticising the government over its Brexit handling if MPs vote in favour.
Labour whips have been calling restive MPs over the weekend to sound out concerns and Starmer’s office promised he would hold a full meeting of the parliamentary party as soon as a deal was done, in order to hear MPs’ views.
The former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw, a close ally of Starmer but an outspoken critic of Brexit, said he had been inundated with emails from constituents concerned about the party’s stance.
“MPs and party members who feel most strongly about this are Keir’s most loyal supporters,” he said. “We are all receiving a lot of emails from members who cannot understand why we might do this and even threatening to leave if we do. These are people we cannot afford to lose.”
On the backbenches, MPs such as Margaret Hodge and Catherine McKinnell have told whips to go for a free vote or abstention. The row has spilled over into MPs’ WhatsApp groups, where the Brighton MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle clashed with Swansea’s Geraint Davies.
Other influential MPs, including those who were in favour of a second referendum, such as Hilary Benn, Thangam Debbonaire and Wes Streeting, now believe Labour should vote in favour of a Brexit deal.
Some believe Labour should apply specific tests to any deal in terms of what it delivers for job security and trade – though they are tests any bare-bones deal would be unlikely to meet. Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, said: “With the government’s majority the size that it is, the choice Labour faces is whether we endorse Boris’s deal or not.
“For me to want to support any deal he makes it has to meet the needs of the British people on security, jobs protection, trade and climate change – without seeing it no one can judge if it does that and time is running out.”
MPs are also worried about the effect on Scotland’s elections in May should the party decide to back a Brexit deal – allowing the SNP to lump both Labour and the Tories together as Brexit-backing parties. The SNP is likely to abstain in a vote on any deal.