Scottish Labour MSPs have denied their decision to back a motion at Holyrood rejecting the Brexit trade deal has exposed divisions with Keir Starmer, after encountering a furious backlash from party members over their strategy.
Senior Labour MSPs were aghast after Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, issued a press release on Tuesday saying the party would vote for a Scottish National party motion which rejects the deal on Wednesday afternoon. (See 10.28am.)
That appeared to directly contradict Starmer’s instruction to Labour MPs in Westminster to back Boris Johnson’s deal, to avoid the appearance of backing a no deal instead.
During a tense Labour group meeting on Wednesday morning, MSPs launched what one described as a “recovery mission” to avert a crisis, including tabling an amendment designed to protect workers’ rights and pressing Nicola Sturgeon’s government to spend the £300m held in reserve for Brexit to mitigate its worst impacts.
Party sources said the SNP motion, tabled in Nicola Sturgeon’s name, was in fact carefully worded and pragmatic. While it refused Holyrood’s consent for the deal, its central demand was for the UK government to pause the implementation of the deal to allow the UK’s devolved parliaments to properly study it and allow further time to cope with its negative impacts.
One Labour source said the motion explicitly accepted a no-deal outcome had to be avoided; they said that echoed Starmer’s position. “By voting for this, we’re not voting for or against a deal, because it is very carefully worded. It’s about process,” the source said.
Anas Sarwar, the centrist MSP who is now Scottish Labour’s constitution spokesperson, also sought to downplay the significance of the Holyrood and Senedd votes by describing them as “symbolic”, while endorsing Starmer’s stance. He said:
The reality is that at this late stage we are faced with a binary choice between a deal or no deal, which is why our colleagues in the UK Labour party are acting in the national interest at Westminster and reject a no-deal scenario.
Unlike the SNP, we will do nothing to risk a no-deal Brexit. This is grown-up politics in contrast with the nationalists’ game-playing.
Even so, this attempt at face saving leaves Labour split: in Westminster, Starmer will reluctantly back the deal while attacking the SNP for voting against it. In the Welsh Senedd, Labour is also expected to support the “thin and disappointing deal” as, according to the first minister, Mark Drakeford, it is “a platform on which better arrangements can be negotiated in the future”.