Labour’s chances of defeating the EU withdrawal bill in parliament on Monday were dealt a blow after a leading backbencher said she would defy a three-line whip and instead support the government on the issue.
Caroline Flint, formerly Europe minister, who represents the strongly pro-leave Don Valley constituency, said she believed it was an error to oppose the bill at second reading, rather than seek to amend it later.
“I believe Labour’s job is to improve this bill, not kill it as it begins its passage through parliament,” Flint told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I have to make a decision on this, and these decisions aren’t easy. I have never broken the whip at all but I do believe that in respecting the outcome of the referendum, in respecting what I said to my electors in a general election just a few months ago, it’s important that we get on with the job of making sure we can have as smooth an exit from the European Union as possible.”
The withdrawal bill, which will be debated in the House of Commons until midnight on Monday before a vote on whether it should proceed, is a central piece of Brexit legislation that will bring EU laws and regulations into the UK statute book.
While the government describes it as a vital but largely technical piece of legislation, Labour and the Liberal Democrats argue it gives ministers huge discretionary powers to amend legislation without seeking the approval of parliament.
Under the terms of the bill, ministers can use what is called secondary legislation to change laws unilaterally.
Flint was the first Labour MP to say she would defy the party whip on the vote. She was later joined by Frank Field.
Speaking in the Commons during the bill debate on Monday afternoon, Flint was heckled by Labour MPs when she said she did not regard the bill “as hugely controversial”.
She said she accepted the bill’s scope of powers would need attention but said it was not Labour’s job to kill it. “If it was abolishing workers’ rights, abandoning paid holiday and ending pollution control, that would be different but it does not,” she said.
“Whoever was in government we would have to pass a bill of this kind. There can be little disagreement on that unless your ambition is to thwart the result and prevent or delay the UK leaving the EU. I believe Labour’s job is to improve the bill by amending it, not killing the bill at the beginning of its passage through parliament.”
Flint said it was time both leave and remain supporters accepted that their perfect vision of Britain inside or outside the EU was impossible.”Since the referendum vote I have argued leave and remain supporters should bury our difference and get on with it.... We either work to make the best of it or damn it for not being perfect,” she said.
During the first day of the debate on the bill last Thursday, a number of Conservative MPs expressed concern that the bill was handing too much power to ministers, prompting the Brexit secretary, David Davis, to indicate he was willing to offer some concessions.
Flint, who has previously expressed concern at the idea Labour could back the UK remaining in the EU’s single market after Brexit, argued it would be better for Labour to join efforts to try to amend the bill rather than seek to vote it down on Monday.
“Whoever was in government would have to have a bill like this, and I do believe it’s our job to make sure we can improve this bill – it certainly needs improving,” she said.
“But if we were to vote this bill down, if we were to somehow get the votes tonight to kill it, it would cause huge problems. It would end the session of parliament, we’d probably have to prorogue, and they would have to come back with a new bill.
“I don’t believe that affecting that is what the British public want. I think they want us to make sure that we deal with the complexities of this, that we recognise that at the end of the day there will have to be compromises on all sides, whether people voted leave or remain.
“But we need an orderly exit, and part of that is making sure we have the legislation on the statute books that enables us to leave smoothly in March 2019.”
Also speaking on Today the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said the withdrawal bill was vital for a smooth Brexit. “If we don’t do that then the whole thing will be disorderly and chaotic,” he said. “People who vote against it will effectively be voting to frustrate Brexit by producing a completely chaotic result.”
But Jenny Chapman, a shadow Brexit minister, said the government needed to rethink the bill entirely. “What the government ought to do is take our point about how dreadful this bill is and come back with something more appropriate, that it needs to do the job of Brexit,” she told Sky News.
“We accept that we need to repeal the 1972 act [European Communities Act] and we need to bring EU law into UK law for a smooth exit. What you don’t need, though, which the government is helping itself to, is these sweeping powers for ministers to change primary legislation.”
Chapman added: “It can change anything it fancies with very little justification, and we think it’s wrong, and we don’t think you need it for a smooth Brexit.”
Speaking later on Today, Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, which is holding its annual conference this week, said the government needed a wider rethink of its approach to Brexit.
“I’m concerned that the prime minister is being held hostage by her hardliners,” she said. “What has become increasingly clear is that we need a transition period so that we don’t go off the cliff edge, and that we need to play by the rules during that period so that we can focus on the long-term deal that protects jobs and rights.”
This article was written by Peter Walker Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th September 2017 08.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010