Theresa May is on course to trigger Article 50 by her target of early March, after the Brexit bill cleared the Commons with no changes. On a day in which Britain veered ever closer to a “hard Brexit”, Jeremy Corbyn was stung – and divisions in the Labour exposed still further – by the resignation of Clive Lewis, a key ally of the Labour leader in the shadow Cabinet. MPs again gave their overwhelming backing to the Prime Minister to start withdrawal talks on her terms – by 494 votes to 122 – on the final Commons reading of the landmark legislation.
Crucially, they rejected no fewer than nine attempted amendments, including one to guarantee the future rights of EU nationals, which means a ‘clean’ Bill will go to the upper chamber. Delighted Brexit supporters believe that will make it harder for the unelected Lords – despite a strong Remain majority – to amend the Bill, because of a reluctance to take on elected MPs. The Lords will face an overwhelming public call to be abolished if they now try and frustrate this bill. They must get on and deliver the will of the British people.The bill is now expected to be given royal assent on 7 March – allowing the Prime Minister to formally notify the EU that she is invoking Article 50 at an EU summit later that week.
Pro-Europe MPs loudly hummed “Ode to Joy”, the EU anthem, as the final historic votes were cast, until the Deputy Speaker told them to be quiet. Just minutes earlier, Clive Lewis, Labour’s shadow Business Secretary, announced he was quitting the shadow Cabinet in order to vote against Article 50, but Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, backed it. London MP with a huge pro-Remain constituency, she said: “I don’t believe we’ve given a blank cheque. We’re going to be holding them to account on the floor of the House.”
A delighted David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, said: “We’ve seen a historic vote tonight – a big majority for getting on with negotiating our exit from the EU and a strong, new partnership with its member states. “The decision on EU membership has been made by the people we serve. It is now time for everyone, whichever way they voted in the referendum, to unite to make a success of the important task at hand for our country.”
Earlier, MPs threw out an attempted amendment to immediately “protect the residence rights” of three million EU citizens in the UK, facing huge uncertainty over their future. Some Tory MPs had threatened a rebellion, urging Ms May to act without waiting for other EU countries to protect the rights of 1.2 million British citizens in their countries. But the revolt fizzled out after Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, insisted the decision would be in MPs’ hands and that “nothing would change” without their consent.
Leading pro-Brexit MPs who claimed the NHS would receive an extra £350m-a-week after Brexit were condemned for voting against an amendment demanding an analysis of the impact on the NHS. Current and former Cabinet ministers Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel all campaigned on the alleged spending bonanza for the health service – some alongside a battlebus promising voters the extra £350m.
Ms May was forced to draw up the bill after the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament must give its consent to triggering Article 50, but it proved far from the major hindrance she appeared to fear.