It was set to be a big Brexit day, but the developments on that front were largely overshadowed by a row over whether Labour MP Chris Williamson should be suspended. After a number of revelations around antisemitism – from the MP saying the party had been “too apologetic” about it to describing supporters of Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth as “white privileged” – top figures called for disciplinary action. Deputy leader Tom Watson, London mayor Sadiq Khan, the GMB’s Tim Roache and many backbenchers all demanded his suspension.
At first, Labour would only say he should apologise. Then the party said he had been issued with a notice of investigation. Later, the decision was taken to suspend him and the whip was therefore withdrawn. This three-stage process, which itself followed many months of pressure from MPs and groups urging action, ensured that the story dragged on throughout the day and continues to do so. The Daily Mail, The Independent and Newsnight have all reported that Jeremy Corbyn was personally involved in the initial decision not to suspend Williamson, and that it was only reversed when – as warned in yesterday’s morning email – more resignations were threatened. Labour’s press team have strongly denied such reports, saying: “Jeremy Corbyn is not involved in disciplinary processes and did not intervene in this case.” What we do know is that Williamson’s approach to antisemitism issues hasn’t changed since JLM filed a complaint last summer. Only the likelihood of Labour MPs resigning over it has changed.
This row dominated the news although MPs were set to vote on important Brexit amendments. Turnout was low, however, so Labour’s one laying out its Brexit plan was defeated by 83 votes – a larger majority than in January. (Check out last night’s full results and rebel lists here.) Commentators confidently pronounced: ‘and now, Labour switches to supporting another EU referendum’. But that isn’t quite right. As made clear by the “Our Alternative” videos tweeted by frontbenchers, and Corbyn’s reaction to the results, the party isn’t giving up on its own vision of Brexit. It intends to keep pushing its “five demands”. With Labour also backing a “confirmatory referendum” (i.e. pass a deal, then put it to a public vote against ‘Remain’), this raises the interesting question of how the party would campaign in that situation. For ‘Remain’, and against its own deal?
We know that getting a ‘people’s vote’ through the Commons is currently unattainable, with too few supportive Tories and too many Labour rebels. Though neither believes it is, the leaderships of both main parties want the threat of another referendum to feel real – party unity reasons for Corbyn, pressuring Brexiteers for May. On an interesting episode of ITV’s Peston last night, John McDonnell claimed to think ‘PV’ will become more likely with rising panic among MPs. But if this ever did look to be the case, I’d bet the Prime Minister would do everything possible to shut it down, aided by the many Tories strongly and genuinely opposed to the idea. We may be closer to another referendum than ever, but it’s still very far from likely. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.