Corbyn bids to head off Labour revolt over Brexit
Jeremy Corbyn was attempting to prevent a widespread revolt over Brexit after a member of the shadow cabinet quit over his decision to force Labour MPs to support the Article 50 Bill.
The Labour leader acknowledged MPs in strongly Remain-supporting areas were "understandably torn" over the three-line whip requiring them to back the legislation for Theresa May to start the Brexit process.
Jo Stevens quit as shadow Welsh secretary saying that Brexit was a "terrible mistake" while two Labour whips - meant to enforce party discipline - indicated they would rebel in next week's vote.
In her resignation letter Ms Stevens, the first member of Mr Corbyn's top team to quit over the issue, said she had argued against the imposition of the three-line whip requiring them to support the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
She said: " I accept the referendum result is to leave. I also accept that the parliamentary numbers are such that Article 50 will be triggered and we will leave the EU.
"But I believe that leaving is a terrible mistake and I cannot reconcile my overwhelming view that to endorse the step that will make exit inevitable is wrong.
"I expect this to be the most important vote I will ever cast as an MP and for me it is a clear issue of principle and conscience."
In a sign of the revolt facing Mr Corbyn, party whips Jeff Smith and Thangam Debbonaire said they are prepared to go against his orders.
Shadow transport minister Daniel Zeichner also said he would vote against Article 50 and Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq quit her role as a shadow education minister over the issue on Thursday.
In a plea for unity, Mr Corbyn used his response to Ms Stevens' resignation to acknowledge the dilemma facing MPs in areas that backed the Remain cause.
But with Labour MPs also representing many of the former industrial heartlands which backed Brexit, Mr Corbyn stressed the need to respect the referendum result.
He said: " I understand the difficulties that Jo, and other MPs, have when facing the Article 50 Bill. Those MPs with strong Remain constituencies are understandably torn.
"However, it is right that the Labour Party respects the outcome of the referendum on leaving the European Union. We have said all along that Labour will not frustrate the triggering of Article 50 and to that end we are asking all MPs to vote for the Bill at its second reading next week.
"I wish Jo Stevens well and look forward to working with her in the future."
Mr Corbyn's former leadership rival Owen Smith said he would vote against the Bill and predicted that as many as 50 Labour MPs would rebel.
The Pontypridd MP told the BBC: "I think it could be between 20 and 50. I think people will be making their minds up over the next few days."
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, a key ally of the leader, defended Mr Corbyn's position on triggering Article 50, which will begin the two-year countdown to Brexit.
She told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "You have to remember how this looks to people in post-industrial Britain, former mining areas, the North, the Midlands, South Wales - it would look as if elites were refusing to listen to them.
"It would be wrong. How could MPs vote for a referendum and then turn around and say 'It went the wrong way so we are ignoring it'?"
Shadow business secretary Clive Lewis, who said he will vote for the legislation at a second reading stage - its first Commons' hurdle - vowed that he would not continue to back the Bill as it progresses unless Labour demands for changes were accepted by ministers.
He said: "Labour's amendments attempt to ensure we have the closest relationship to Europe and the single market as is possible, protect worker rights, have proper report-back mechanisms on the negotiations and have final say over the eventual negotiated deal.
"If the Government does not accept these amendments, I will vote against triggering Article 50 at the third and final vote."