May wins parliament vote to trigger Article 50 by March 2017

UK Prime Minister Theresa May aboard HMS Ocean earlier this week, where she announced her 'red, white and blue' Brexit strategy. [10 Downing Street/Flickr]

British Prime Minister Theresa May secured a symbolic victory on Brexit late last night (7 December) after MPs agreed not to delay her plans to begin the EU exit talks by the end of March – although she had to promise to give them more details of her negotiating strategy.

The opposition Labour party’s original motion demanded the government publish its “plan” before triggering EU Article 50, which begins the two-year exit process.

This motion had been expected to draw support from dozens of May’s Conservative MPs but the premier fended off a rebellion with a last-minute amendment, accepting the Labour motion on condition that MPs support her timetable for triggering the Brexit talks.

Lawmakers voted 461 in favour of the amendment, backing May’s timeline to trigger the divorce negotiations with Brussels by March 31, 2017.

A total of 89 MPs voted against that amendment, in which May agreed to provide further details on her negotiating strategy before triggering Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, with the results announced in parliament.

A second vote saw 448 lawmakers support the motion in its entirety, with the amendment, while 75 lawmakers voted against.

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The House of Commons vote is not binding and the government is still fighting a challenge at the Supreme Court against moves to give parliament the final say on starting the Brexit process.

Following the results MP Hilary Benn, from the opposition Labour Party, said he hoped the vote would prompt the government to give more information on its plans for negotiating Britain’s future outside the European Union.

“When they have said they are going to publish a plan, I expect to see some detail.

“Parliament doesn’t intend to be a bystander, parliament intends to be a participant,” he told BBC News.

Iain Duncan Smith, from the ruling Conservative Party, said the vote was “a very historic moment” which enabled the government to act on Brexit.

“The government now has a blank cheque, and I think that’s a good thing,” he told Sky News.

May has so far refused to give a “running commentary” on her strategy, insisting that revealing her hand prematurely would undermine the negotiations.

‘A trap’

Ahead of the vote Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer welcomed the amendment, saying the government had “caved in” and “must now prepare its plan and publish it”.

He called for an outline plan by January, warning that his party would not accept a “late, vague plan” that allowed no time for parliamentary debate.

May has previously said she wants the “best possible deal” for trade with the EU, to create new deals outside the bloc and to control immigration.

Government minister David Lidington said there would be a “statement about our negotiating strategy and objectives” before Article 50 is triggered.

But the approved motion gives ministers considerable leeway to withhold details, by stating “there should be no disclosure of material that could be reasonably judged to damage the UK in any negotiations”.

The amended motion was opposed by one Conservative MP – former chancellor Ken Clarke — and nine Labour MPs. Five of the Liberal Democrats’ nine MPs also voted against the final motion, along with 51 out of the total 54 Scottish National Party lawmakers, among others.

A further challenge for May comes with the Supreme Court case, which could give MPs the chance to block Brexit at a later date by voting against the government.

Court case arrest

The Supreme Court is holding hearings this week over whether the government or parliament should begin the Brexit process, but both sides said the case is not affected by Wednesday’s Commons debate.

The prime minister is appealing a ruling by the lower High Court last month which decided she cannot use her executive power to trigger Article 50 and must first seek authorisation from parliament.

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MPs overwhelmingly opposed Brexit during the June referendum on the subject, prompting concerns they might seek to delay Britain’s withdrawal or at least soften the terms of the break.

The court case has reignited strong passions over Brexit, and the claimant leading the challenge against the government, investment fund manager Gina Miller, has received death threats.

Police said on Wednesday they had arrested a 55-year-old man on suspicion of racially aggravated malicious communications, as part of an investigation into online threats against an unnamed woman, believed to be Miller.