Brexit Bill set to clear major hurdle in Parliament

Ministers stress Britain will still exit EU if lawmakers reject final deal

LONDON • MPs looked set to approve a Bill yesterday empowering Prime Minister Theresa May to start Brexit negotiations, in a major step towards Britain leaving the European Union.

Seven months after the historic referendum vote to leave the 28-nation bloc, the House of Commons was expected to grant its approval for Mrs May to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty.

The Bill would still need to pass through the House of Lords, where there may be more opposition from unelected peers less concerned about defying the majority of voters who backed Brexit in the vote last June.

But if, as expected, the Bill passes its Commons stage in a vote scheduled for late yesterday, Mrs May will be significantly closer to her goal of starting the two-year exit talks by the end of next month.

Under pressure from MPs, the government was forced to concede on Tuesday that Parliament would have a vote on the final Brexit deal before it is sent to the European Parliament for approval. The move helped fend off a rebellion by pro-European members of Mrs May's Conservative Party, who had threatened to back an opposition amendment to the two-clause Bill.

However, ministers stressed that if lawmakers rejected the final deal, the alternative was not to return to negotiations but to leave the EU without an agreement.

The Bill would still need to pass through the House of Lords, where there may be more opposition from unelected peers less concerned about defying the majority of voters who backed Brexit in the vote last June. But if, as expected, the Bill passes its Commons stage in a vote scheduled for late yesterday, Mrs May will be significantly closer to her goal of starting the two-year exit talks by the end of next month.

"This will be a meaningful vote. It will be a choice between leaving the European Union with a negotiated deal or not," Brexit Minister David Jones said.

More than two-thirds of MPs campaigned against Brexit in the deeply divisive run-up to the June referendum, but after 52 per cent of Britons voted to leave the EU, most have reluctantly accepted that they must uphold the result.

When Mrs May introduced her Brexit Bill last month, following a Supreme Court ruling that she must seek Parliament's approval to start the divorce process, the opposition Labour Party promised not to block it.

Some 47 Labour MPs rebelled to vote against the legislation, backed by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the smaller Liberal Democrats party, and more could defy their party leadership.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has come under pressure over his reaction to the Brexit vote, and a mass rebellion threatens to plunge his embattled party into an even deeper crisis.

In a symbolic move on Tuesday, the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly against the Bill passing through Westminster. A new poll released yesterday showed support rising in Scotland for independence as Britain prepares to leave the EU.

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said a second independence referendum is now "highly likely", and allies have suggested it could be as early as next year. However, the survey also found 56 per cent of Scots do not want another independence referendum before the conclusion of Brexit negotiations.

Mr Jones, meanwhile, said the "final draft agreement" on leaving the EU would be put to MPs and peers before it was put to the European Parliament for ratification.

A number of lawmakers are sceptical that both the exit terms and a new trade deal can be agreed within two years of talks. Mr Jones said he was confident of getting agreement on both areas, but added that if there was no deal, Britain would fall back on World Trade Organisation rules to determine its trade with the EU.

Labour MP Chris Leslie warned: "On the nightmare scenario, that we could leave the EU with no deal at all and face damaging barriers to trade with Europe, it seems Parliament could have no say whatsoever."

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, REUTERS

SEE OPINION:  UK's quest for a free trade deal

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Brexit Bill set to clear major hurdle in Parliament'. Print Edition | Subscribe