Rebel Labour MPs who plan to defy Jeremy Corbyn over the EU single market have been told by colleagues to “shut up” and unite the party on more winnable Brexit battles.
Backbencher Wes Streeting was heckled by frontbenchers as internal tensions reignited during a heated meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in the House of Commons.
Streeting urged the leadership to back a Lords amendment seeking to make the UK a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) after Britain quits the EU next March.
But a string of fellow MPs lined up to condemn the rebels, with Clive Efford saying that those who went on TV to declare Corbyn was betraying the national interest should “shut up” and unite behind amendments that could win.
Efford won the loudest applause of the evening as he hit out at those who claimed that the EEA or ‘Norway option’ vote on Wednesday was there to be won.
“Clive won applause because he said people are stupid if they keep trying to say we can beat the Government on this,” one MP said.
Tempers frayed as several MPs rallied behind Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, who had warned that Labour should focus its “fire” on amendments on a “meaningful vote” and on customs instead.
The EEA amendment was backed by more than 80 Labour peers - including former leader Neil Kinnock - as they rebelled against Corbyn’s party whip last month.
Another sizeable rebellion is expected on Tuesday when MPs vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Yet with Theresa May appearing to buy off her own rebel MPs, Starmer supporters said ‘arch-Remainers’ should stop pretending that there was a majority for the EEA when so many Labour MPs were against it.
Some 20 MPs spoke during the PLP meeting, with MPs from ‘Leave’ areas like Caroline Flint urging the party not to ignore Labour voters for whom controlled immigration is a priority.
They argue that the Norway model, which allows ‘free movement’ of migrants, would prove unpopular in some Labour heartlands.
Other MPs including Alison McGovern, Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper all warned that Labour had to fight for a jobs-first Brexit.
Starmer told the meeting that there were “concerning reports” of senior Tory rebels wavering in the face of No.10 pressure and that the focus in the next 48 hours should be on getting a position which got most cross-party support.
The only “winnable” votes were on a meaningful vote and on customs, he said, pointing out that Theresa May’s Government had faced a “deep crisis” with a possible resignation by Brexit Secretary David Davis and Boris Johnson urging Trump-style tactics with Brussels.
One MP told HuffPost that party chair Ian Lavery was among those who heckled Streeting, but he denied the claim.
“We’ve undergone an almost painful episode of tribal loyalty,” one veteran frontbencher joked as he left the meeting. “We all love Keir.”
But MPs backing the EEA amendment were furious at what they saw as orchestrated attacks on the rebels.
“The Corbynistas chuntered and Keir joined them. Yet Keir seemed to be arguing that Labour having no position at all was a virtue. He thinks he’s played a blinder tactically and so being told he hasn’t brings out the fire.”
Another leading pro-Remain MP said: “The key thing is what message we send to the Lords. If we get the Tories to at least abstain, we can get the Lords to tweak their amendment and come back again.
“But my message to the front bench is that you talk about austerity but you’ll see it really bite if we aren’t in the EU single market. We are talking about £38bn, the difference between being in the EEA and having a free trade agreement. That’s the entire Ministry of Defence budget.
“So don’t come to me Angela Rayner and say ‘we haven’t got enough money for schools’, or John Healey ‘we haven’t got enough for housing’ or Jon Ashworth ‘we haven’t enough for the NHS’. If you vote against the EEA, you’re voting to make us poorer.”
However, there were hints that some rebels were peeling away under the pressure, with some MPs hedging their bets in the PLP meeting.
Corbyn has whipped his MPs to abstain on the EEA amendment, but the party is united on other 14 other Lords amendments. The leadership has yet to decide how to discipline any shadow ministers who defy the whip.