LONDON • Britain's Parliament has backed a second reading of legislation to sever ties with the European Union, a reprieve for Prime Minister Theresa May who now faces demands by lawmakers for concessions before it becomes law.
After more than 13 hours of speeches for and against the legislation, which Mrs May says is essential for Brexit but critics describe as a government power grab, lawmakers voted 326 to 290 in favour of moving the EU withdrawal Bill, or repeal Bill, to the next stage of a lengthy lawmaking process.
Many fell in step with the Conservative government which said a vote against the legislation would force Britain into a chaotic exit from the EU, rather than a smooth departure, as the country would lack laws and a regulatory framework to steer the process.
Mrs May, weakened by the loss of her majority in a June election, now faces a battle against politicians who want to force amendments to the Bill, first in the Lower House of Parliament and then in the Upper chamber, the House of Lords.
"Although there is more to do, this decision means we can move on with negotiations with solid foundations," the Prime Minister said in a statement.
Her justice minister urged lawmakers to back the Bill and signalled that the government would listen to their concerns, despite describing some criticism as being"exaggerated up to and beyond the point of hyperbole".
The Bill seeks largely to "copy and paste" EU law into British legislation to ensure Britain has functioning laws and the same regulatory framework as the bloc at the moment of Brexit, to offer some reassurance for companies.
But the often impassioned debate in the 650-seat Parliament underlined the rifts exposed by last year's EU referendum, not only in Britain's main parties, but also in the country.
The opposition Labour Party had called on its lawmakers to vote against the Bill if the government failed to make concessions. But seven MPs rebelled, with some saying they had to respect the demands of their pro-Brexit voters.
"This Bill is an affront to parliamentary democracy and a naked power grab by government ministers... It will make the Brexit process more uncertain, and lead to division and chaos when we need unity and clarity," said Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer.
The government has defended the Bill by saying it will allow Britain to become "masters of our own laws", but it also gives ministers wide-ranging powers to amend laws to make them work domestically, often by interchanging the word "EU" for Britain.
But lawmakers, both in Labour and Mrs May's governing Conservative Party, expressed fears the government would make substantial changes to legislation without consulting Parliament - a charge the government has denied.
Despite the victory for the government, ministers will face attempts by both Conservative and Labour lawmakers to change the Bill.
Some want assurances that the government will not misuse its power, others want to ensure the protections of certain workers' rights before allowing the Bill to move to the Upper House.