British lawmakers give go ahead to Brexit

A majority of the MPs in the House of Commons backed a bill that allows Prime Minister Theresa May to initiate the process of pulling Britain out of the EU.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The bill now moves to House of Lords where it could face opposition.

Updated Feb 9, 2017

British MPs overwhelmingly backed a bill on Wednesday empowering Prime Minister Theresa May to start negotiations on leaving the European Union, bringing Brexit a significant step closer.

Members of the House of Commons voted by 494 votes to 122 for a law enabling May to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which begins two years of talks on pulling Britain out of the 28-nation bloc.

"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," said Brexit minister David Davis.

The unamended two-clause bill now moves to the House of Lords, where there may be more opposition from unelected peers – and where May's Conservative party does not have a majority.

But its passage through the Commons, where two-thirds of MPs had campaigned against Brexit ahead of the June referendum, puts May on course to begin the withdrawal process by the end of March, as she has vowed.

Labour headaches

The referendum result sent shock waves around Europe, spooking investors and raising fears for the future of the EU itself.

In the early weeks, there was speculation that pro-European lawmakers might try to delay or even stop the Brexit process.

The opponents of Brexit fear it will hamper free movement of people between the European countries. (Reuters)

May initially sought to bypass parliament, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court, which last month ruled she must obtain their approval to trigger Article 50.

But during five days of debate on the resulting government bill, it became clear that most MPs would not stop the process -- even if some warned that leaving Europe's single market could be disastrous.  

The opposition Labour party and the smaller Scottish National Party (SNP) tabled amendments demanding guarantees on market access, workers' rights and those of EU citizens in Britain.

Each was defeated, although during the process the government was forced to promise lawmakers a vote on the final Brexit deal before it is concluded.

Labour imposed a "three-line whip," a tough disciplinary measure ordering its MPs not to oppose the legislation, ensuring it would pass.

But some 52 Labour MPs rebelled in Wednesday's vote, including business spokesman Clive Lewis who resigned shortly beforehand, bringing a fresh headache for embattled leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn.

After two-thirds of Labour voters backed Brexit, many of them driven by concerns over mass immigration from the rest of the EU, Corbyn decided his party could not block the process.