Labour rebels attack Richard Leonard over ‘hardest Brexit’

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Labour MPs calling for their party to back a soft Brexit have rounded on Richard Leonard, warning his “bizarre” stance on the EU single market risks damaging the party’s revival in Scotland.

Wes Streeting, one of the most prominent advocates for remaining in the single market on the Labour back benches at Westminster, said the Scottish Labour leader had given his party the hardest Brexit stance at Holyrood and urged him to reconsider. Meanwhile First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Jeremy Corbyn of trying to “mislead” voters on the single market ahead of a crucial House of Commons vote that is set to re-open Labour’s divisions on Brexit.

Richard Leonard has come under fire from rebel MPs. Picture: John Devlin/JP Licence

Richard Leonard has come under fire from rebel MPs. Picture: John Devlin/JP Licence

Mr Corbyn rejected a fresh appeal from the First Minister for his party to support an SNP-backed amendment on the single market when the EU (Withdrawal) Bill is debated this week.

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The Scottish Government will today publish economic analysis of the most likely Brexit scenarios showing that a soft Brexit inside the single market would be the least damaging option for Scotland. The lack of any UK government studies to support its plan to leave the trading bloc means “hard Brexiteers have had their chance and failed”, it will say.

Under Mr Leonard, Scottish Labour has stuck closely to policy at Westminster, dismissing cross-party efforts to keep the UK in the single market as a gimmick and criticising the SNP for using Brexit as a “political opportunity” to further their independence ambitions.

I believe there is a majority in the House of Commons for remaining in the single market if Labour gets its act together

Nicola Sturgeon

His departure from previous Labour policy on the single market under Kezia Dudgale is understood to have caused disquiet among the Scottish Labour group at Holyrood. A party source said: “Scottish Labour members were promised real change. All they’ve got so far is hard Brexit.”

Mr Streeting told a conference in London at the weekend that Labour had become the single biggest obstacle to a soft Brexit inside the single market.

He told The Scotsman: “It is absurd, because if the Labour Party tomorrow decided to remain in the single market, we would instantly command a majority in the House of Commons and majority support in the country.

“In Scotland, the situation is even more bizarre because when you listen to what Ruth Davidson says, diverging from Theresa May’s policy, Scottish Labour seems to be the only party in Scotland that is opposed to single market membership.”

First Minster Nicola Sturgeon hit out at Jeremy Corbyn over single market. Picture: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

First Minster Nicola Sturgeon hit out at Jeremy Corbyn over single market. Picture: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

Mr Streeting added: “I simply can’t understand how in Holyrood, Labour seems to have a policy that’s harder on Brexit than every single other party including the Scottish Conservatives.”

The MP for Ilford North in London said Labour’s calls for a “jobs-first Brexit” that secures “tariff-free access” to the EU while leaving the single market was a “fudge” for the 2017 general election that “will not carry us through 2018”.

Mr Streeting said there was “no such thing as a jobs-first Brexit outside the single market”, adding that EU regulations within the bloc were “the best insurance policy against the kind of race-to-the-bottom in the economy that Richard Leonard is rightly critical of”.

Warning of the risk to a Labour revival in Scotland from supporting a hard Brexit, he said: “There are lots of people who voted Conservative who are appalled at the way they’re handling Brexit negotiations. Labour leading the way on single market membership would not just be the right policy, it would be sensible politics ahead of a general election that could come at any time.

“In Scotland, where we’re taking the fight to the Tories and the SNP, we’ve got to remember that Scotland is a pro-EU country, and proudly so.”

Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme, Mr Corbyn insisted that remaining in the single market would not respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum.

The First Minister accused Mr Corbyn of seeking to “mislead people” by persisting with “inaccurate” comments.

But the Labour leader said in response to Ms Sturgeon’s appeal: “I don’t quite understand why she would keep saying ‘join the single market’ when leaving the EU means you leave the single market.”

Earlier, the First Minister told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that there was “a real window of opportunity” to force the government into staying in the single market.

“I believe there is a majority in the House of Commons for remaining in the single market if Labour gets its act together,” she said.

“Jeremy Corbyn has to decide where he stands on all this. I think most of his supporters will be deeply disappointed that he appears to be only slightly less in favour of a harder, and perhaps the hardest possible Brexit than the Tories are, and many will find that completely inexplicable.”