News ID: 187911
Published: 0642 GMT February 18, 2017

Labour MPs challenge Blair over Brexit speech

Labour MPs challenge Blair over Brexit speech

Former British prime minister Tony Blair faced a backlash from Labour MPs for fueling the party’s divisions over Brexit, as he launched a campaign to keep the UK in the EU ahead of two crucial byelections in leave-voting seats.

In a major intervention on Friday, Blair accused a weakened Labour Party of allowing Brexit to happen, and called for a cross-party political movement to persuade people that the costs of leaving will be painful, the Guardian reported.

“The debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit. I hate to say that, but it is true,” he said in the speech at Bloomberg in central London. “What this means is that we have to build a movement which stretches across party lines, and devise new ways of communication.”

His call for millions to “rise up” against Brexit was met with enthusiasm by some of the 47 Labour MPs opposing Brexit and senior Lib Dems such as Nick Clegg and Tim Farron.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and first minister of Scotland, also praised Blair’s “quality of analysis and argument”, after he acknowledged Brexit had made the case for Scottish independence “more credible”.

However, the speech was viewed as highly unhelpful by Labour figures campaigning in a tight battle against UKIP and the Tories to retain seats in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, where the party is trying to emphasize its support for triggering article 50 and respecting the result of the referendum.

About 70% of referendum voters in Stoke, and about 60% of the electorate in Copeland wanted to leave the EU on 23 June.

Among those challenging Blair’s message was Jenny Chapman, a shadow Brexit minister, who questioned the “interesting” timing of the speech and said it “won’t help”.

The biggest concern among some Labour MPs in leave-voting seats was that the party would appear to be undermining the referendum result.

Caroline Flint, the Labour MP for Don Valley and a former minister under Blair, said: “I think it is bad advice, because what Tony seems to be advocating is leaving is not inevitable and if people work hard enough, he’s hoping he can force with others a second referendum. My view is that is asking for a two-year campaign to undermine the vote, when I think we need to respect the vote and work hard to get the best deal.”

David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, even raised doubts about Blair’s commitment to the party. “

One senior Labour adviser added: “It should make everyone angry. It’s about Tony Blair and not about the Labour Party. If it was about the Labour Party, he would have waited another week until the byelections are out of the way before making an attack on his own party.”



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