Labour MPs attack sacking of Owen Smith over Brexit

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March 24, 2018 5:41 am Published by
Owen Smith
Image caption Shadow NI secretary Owen Smith said Labour needed to do more than just back a “soft Brexit”

Labour figures have criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to sack his shadow Northern Ireland secretary for calling for another EU referendum.

Owen Smith said he would continue to speak up for what he called his “long-held views” on Brexit.

Labour peer Peter Hain described the dismissal as a “Stalinist purge”.

However shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said Mr Smith could not remain on the front bench while holding a position which was not Labour policy.

Mr Smith was asked to stand down by the Labour leader, after demanding a second vote after EU talks have ended.

He has been replaced by Rochdale MP and shadow housing minister Tony Lloyd.

In a tweet, Mr Smith said his concerns about Brexit, which he outlined in a Guardian article, were shared by other supporters and members of the Labour party.

Ms Abbott said Mr Smith was “a valued colleague” but argued he could not sit on the opposition front bench while advancing “a position which was simply not Labour Party policy”.

Ms Abbott, who in November told constituents she would push for a referendum on the final Brexit deal – before clarifying she wanted a Parliamentary vote – said Mr Smith would be able to “make a contribution to the debate” outside the shadow cabinet.

BBC Newsnight’s political editor Nick Watt said supporters of Mr Corbyn thought Mr Smith “wasn’t very collegiate” and had defied collective responsibility.

Mr Watt also reported that friends of Mr Smith complained that journalists knew about the sacking before Mr Corbyn phoned him – a claim disputed by the Labour leader’s office.

Analysis

Image copyright PA
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith went head to head in the 2016 Labour leadership contest

By Jonathan Blake, BBC political correspondent

In a phone call from Jeremy Corbyn and what a source described as a “civil conversation”, Owen Smith was told he was being sacked.

Mr Smith’s comments on Brexit policy were seemingly a step too far for the party leadership, who’d welcomed him back into the fold after his leadership challenge in 2016.

The angry response from some MPs has again laid bare their opposition to Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

But Mr Corbyn’s grip on power in the party has never been stronger.

The fact that he can make this move without fear of open rebellion, is a demonstration of that.

‘Disappointing’

Labour peer Lord Hain, a former Northern Ireland secretary himself, called the sacking a “terrible Stalinist purge” – and said Mr Smith was widely respected for his work on Northern Ireland.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna said it was “extraordinary” that Mr Smith had been sacked for advocating a Brexit policy which he said had wide support in the party.

Fellow MP Anna Turley said Mr Smith’s departure was “disappointing” and he would be a loss to the front bench, while former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw told Mr Smith he was “very sorry” to see him go.

Mr Corbyn said his replacement, shadow minister for housing, communities and local government Mr Lloyd, was “highly experienced”.

He said Mr Lloyd was “committed to ensuring that peace in Northern Ireland is maintained”, as well as helping to steer the devolution deal “back on track”.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tony Lloyd was appointed shadow minister for housing, communities and local government in January

In the article, Mr Smith called for Labour to back membership of the EU single market.

The Labour leader announced last month that the party wanted the UK to be a permanent member of a customs union with the EU after Brexit.

But Mr Smith, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr Corbyn for the party leadership in 2016, insisted Labour needed to do more than “just back a soft Brexit or guarantee a soft border in Ireland”.

He wrote: “If we insist on leaving the EU then there is realistically only one way to honour our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and that is to remain members of both the customs union and the single market.”

Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer has said the party was “not calling for a referendum at this stage”.

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