Scottish Labour has found itself trapped in a no-win dilemma over Brexit after it decided to back a Scottish National party motion against the Brexit deal in Holyrood later today – in direct contradiction of Keir Starmerâ€™s stance at Westminster.
To the consternation of his internal critics, Richard Leonard, the partyâ€™s Scottish leader, announced on Tuesday the party would vote with the SNP to reject the deal by arguing it would cause unjustified economic damage in Scotland.
To the glee of its opponents, this puts the Scottish party on a collision course with Starmer, who has insisted Labour has to back the deal because now it is signed, Westminster faces a binary choice of either backing it or effectively endorsing a no-deal Brexit.
Rejecting counter-arguments that Labour should abstain, Starmer told the Guardian on Tuesday: â€œIf you vote against it, you are voting for no deal. Thatâ€™s the SNPâ€™s inexplicable position. The consequence of that, if they succeed, will be no deal.â€
The implication of Starmerâ€™s position is Scottish Labour must also be backing a no deal if it votes with the SNP in Holyrood. Ian Murray, Scottish Labourâ€™s only MP and the shadow Scottish secretary, has repeatedly supported Starmerâ€™s analysis.
After a tense Holyrood Labour group meeting, the party is expected to publish a revised position later today, claiming their rejection of the deal is based on the Tory governmentâ€™s failure to consult the devolved nations. It will also claim they empathise with Starmerâ€™s dilemma, arguing he has been put in an invidious position.
With Labour trailing at third in polling for Mayâ€™s crucial Holyrood elections, Leonard clearly hopes voting against the deal will protect Labour against SNP attacks it backs Brexit. Given Scotlandâ€™s strongly Europhile sentiments, that attack line could harm Labour.
As things stand, the SNPâ€™s motion at Holyrood to reject the deal will certainly win support from the Scottish Greens, so will pass narrowly without Labourâ€™s support. The Tories will vote against the SNP, as will the Lib Dems.
Even so, Labourâ€™s stance could have significant repercussions for the party in May: its effect is to damage Starmer at a time when Labour unity is essential, and fuel allegations Labour is in disarray. In turn, that increases the SNPâ€™s chances of winning a majority at Holyrood, and thus of holding a second independence referendum.