Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been spared an embarrassing fight over the European Union at his party’s conference after coming under pressure from his own side to soften his Brexit policy.
Dozens of senior party figures called for a Labour government to keep the UK in the EU single market and customs union on the first day of conference in Brighton, threatening to re-open divides that crippled the party before the general election.
But a campaign by Mr Corbyn’s supporters kept Brexit out of the top eight priorities for debate, meaning no votes will be held on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU during the four-day gathering.
The decision will come as a relief to the Labour leader, who is resisting pressure from europhiles in the party and could have lost a divisive clash over Brexit. Polls suggest two-thirds of the Labour membership want a “soft Brexit” that keeps the UK tied to the EU’s free trade bloc.
But reacting on social media, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Labour of “an abdication of responsibility”.
Mr Corbyn claimed yesterday that membership of the single market could stop him from implementing key policies, including nationalising rail operators and supporting factories under threat of closure. However, in a sign of the pressure from Labour’s growing base of pro-EU young voters, he promised to listen to demands that the party work for a soft Brexit.
And the shadow chancellor John McDonnell held out the prospect of a change in policy, suggesting Labour could back single market membership if EU rules on free movement of people could be reformed.
Corbyn ally Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s campaigns chief, acknowledged that the issue had the potential to inflict grave damage on the party.
Asked whether wrangling between Remain and Leave supporters could tear Labour apart, he told a fringe meeting: “It could, if we’re not careful.”
The comments came after more than 30 MPs and other senior Labour figures signed a letter calling on the party to “to have the courage of its convictions on Brexit”. They include former shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray MP and Scottish MEP Catherine Stihler.
Separately, three Scottish local party branches have submitted motions calling for Labour to back permanent membership of the single market and customs union.
Prime Minister Theresa May bowed to pressure from Labour and other opposition parties last week and confirmed that current EU rules would continue to apply during a two-year post-Brexit transition phase that will run until 2021.
Asked about the UK’s relationship with Europe after a transition phase, Mr McDonnell said it was “difficult to see how we can maintain within [the single market] with all the four freedoms that need to be guaranteed”. But he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme: “However, you know we’re talking to our European colleagues… I think we’re moving on in these discussions.”
Asked yesterday whether he would respond to the 66 per cent of Labour supporters who want to stay in the single market, Mr Corbyn said: “Of course I will listen to them.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “What I would say is that the important priority is to ensure that we have a tariff-free trade access to the European market. Half of all our trade is with Europe.
“I would also say that we need to look very carefully at the terms of any trade relationship because at the moment we’re part of the single market. That has within it restrictions in state aid and state spending … I think we have to be quite careful about the powers we need as national governments.”
Europe threatens to overshadow what is expected to be a conference “victory lap” for the Labour leader, who defied critics to win seats in the general election and deny Mrs May a majority.
After seeing off a leadership challenge at conference last year, Mr Corbyn arrives in Brighton with his authority unquestioned and with unprecedented control of party machinery for a Labour leader.
But splits over Brexit could undermine Labour’s bid to present itself as a government-in-waiting.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters in Momentum, the campaign organisation that backed his leadership, emailed members asking them to block attempts to put a debate on the party’s Brexit policy to a vote, which would have heaped further pressure on party leadership.
Mr Corbyn has said he wants ordinary delegates at conference to be given greater power to set policy.
The first day of conference also saw a large protest by Labour supporters in favour of the EU. It followed a huge rally on Saturday attended by thousands of young Labour voters, with a number of EU flags in evidence as Mr Corbyn addressed the crowd.