Some seven months after the bombshell referendum, British MPs finally began debating Brexit on Tuesday (31 January) – although only to grant the government permission to trigger Article 50.
Despite a small backbench Labour rebellion and opposition from the Scottish National Party’s 54 MPs, the nine Liberal Democrats and the sole Green MP, Theresa May’s government stands almost no chance of being defeated on the 137-word bill.
It simply grants the government permission to begin the two-year withdrawal negotiation process under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The UK voted 52%-48% to leave the EU in a June 2016 referendum, after a bad-tempered campaign.
MPs will vote on Wednesday night confirming the so-called Second Reading of the bill, before it returns to the House of Commons for three days of debate in a Third Reading next week.
It then goes to the House of Lords, where the government has no majority. However, peers are unlikely to block a bill voted for by the general public in June last year.
— Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) January 31, 2017
If passed by both chambers of the Houses of Parliament by the end of February or start of March, it would enable Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 at the 9 March summit of EU leaders in Malta.
A white paper from the government, setting out the Brexit options, will be published “soon”, the government said, likely next week.
Opening the debate for the government, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, said, “We asked the people of the UK if they wanted to leave the EU; they decided they did.
It is not a bill about whether or not the UK should leave the EU, or how it should do so. It is simply about implementing a decision already made, a point of no return already passed.”
In perhaps the only significant development in his speech, he confirmed that the UK would probably also leave the Euratom organisation, which governs civil nuclear energy, although membership of that organisation had no ‘exit’ clause in its treaty.
The most high-profile Conservative dissident, veteran MP and Europhile Ken Clarke – a former chancellor, home secretary and health secretary – confirmed he would defy his own government and vote against the bill.
Clarke, an MP since the UK’s entry into the EU in 1973, said leaving would be a “very, very bad move”.
And he called referendums an inappropriate way to decide complex issues, criticising the Leave campaign’s infamous ‘£350m for the NHS’ promise.
— Margaret Keenan (@MargaretKeenan) January 31, 2017
Labour – whose MPs are almost entirely in favour of staying in the EU, baring mavericks such as Kate Hoey – is the party most split on the issue, however.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a so-called ‘three-line whip’ (the most pressure possible) on his MPs to vote with the government, causing several frontbenchers to resign.
Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, Kier Starmer, told the Commons, “We failed to persuade, we lost the referendum. Yes the result was close, yes there were lies and half-truths.”
Demanding that the UK stayed in various EU bodies, such as Europol, the European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Medicines Agency, he concluded: “Though we’re fiercely internationalist, fiercely pro-European, we in the Labour party are, above all, democrats.”
The Commons’ 650 MPs will vote tonight on a SNP motion calling for the Second Reading to be rejected, because it has “no provision for effective consultation with the devolved administrations”, and no detail on the implications of withdrawing from the single market.
May’s government has a working majority of 16.
The government had originally sought to bypass parliament, insisting it had the power to trigger Article 50 on its own, but the Supreme Court last week ruled it must consult MPs and Lords.
The Article 50 process gives Britain just two years to negotiate its departure and, it hopes, a new trade deal with the EU before it leaves.
But the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said the talks must be wrapped up by October 2018 to give the EU and national parliaments time to ratify the final agreement.