May gets green light to trigger Brexit as Labour splits deepen

MPs voted to back Prime Minister Theresa May and trigger Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU. Picture: PA
MPs voted to back Prime Minister Theresa May and trigger Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU. Picture: PA
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MPs have given ministers the go-ahead to begin the taking the UK out of the EU by passing legislation to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

The House of Commons voted by 494 to 122 pass the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, giving Theresa May the authority to launch Brexit talks in a matter of weeks.

Ministers succeeded in rushing the legislation through without a third stage and without any amendments, despite dozens being put forward by opposition MPs in five days of debate.

Labour faces further turmoil on its front bench after another shadow minister resigned over Jeremy Corbyn’s order to MPs not to block the Brexit trigger. In total, 52 Labour MPs rebelled against the party whip.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell was the only MP from Scotland to vote for the bill, while former chancellor Ken Clarke was the only Conservative to oppose it.

Brexit Secretary David Davis hailed the result and called for the UK to get behind making Brexit a success.

“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,” Mr Davis said.

“It has been a serious debate, a healthy debate, with contributions from MPs representing all parts of the UK, and I respect the strong views on all sides.

“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.”

The Scottish Government’s Brexit secretary Michael Russell, in London for talks with UK ministers, said he was “extremely frustrated” and accused Mrs May of “changing the goalposts” on seeking agreement with devolved nations on Brexit.

Mr Russell said: “If the UK Government wants an agreement on triggering Article 50, which it said it did, then it has to come to the table and get one. This vote gets us no nearer that table.”

As the final vote was taken last night, SNP MPs were reprimanded by the deputy Commons speaker for breaking into a rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem.

Alex Salmond MP accused the government of having “railroaded through” the Brexit trigger “in a disgraceful fashion”, and claimed the last time legislation was pushed through the Commons in a similar fashion was the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914.

“For this to happen in any bill would be an abuse; to happen on this bill is an outrage,” Mr Salmond told MPs

The legislation will now go to the House of Lords, where peers could seek to delay the bill and attach amendments to force the government’s hand in talks with the EU. However, the Lords cannot stop the Brexit trigger from becoming law.

After four shadow cabinet members resigned during its earlier stages, the bill claimed a fifth victim on the Labour front bench with shadow business secretary and one-time Corbyn ally Clive Lewis resigning.

Mr Corbyn made it clear to his top team that they could not keep their jobs if they broke a three-line whip on the Article 50 bill.

In a statement, Mr Lewis said: “When I became the MP for Norwich South, I promised my constituents I would be ‘Norwich’s voice in Westminster, not Westminster’s voice in Norwich’.

“I therefore cannot, in all good conscience, vote for something I believe will ultimately harm the city I have the honour to represent, love and call home.”

Wishing Mr Lewis well, the Labour leader, and said: “We have been clear from the start that Labour will not frustrate the triggering of Article 50, which represents the start of the process for leaving the EU.

“Labour will use every opportunity to hold the government to account and protect jobs, rights and living standards at every stage of the negotiations.”

The Home Office is understood to have circulated a letter among Tory backbenchers yesterday to prevent a rebellion on the rights of EU citizens to stay in the UK after Brexit.

Just three Tory backbenchers - Ken Clarke, Tania Mathias and Andrew Tyrie - rebelled to back a bid to make ministers unilaterally guarantee EU nationals’ rights.

The letter was revealed by former culture secretary Ed Vaizey, a would-be rebel, who said: “I’m not going to support any particular amendment tonight because I think that would mess up the Bill and wouldn’t necessarily achieve what the amendments seek to achieve.

“And I’m also deeply reassured by the Home Secretary’s letter which was circulated earlier. And also, I have to say, by the Prime Minister’s repeated comments about how she is going to make it an absolute priority to get clarity for the rights of EU citizens.”

A Liberal Democrat amendment to the bill calling for a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal was heavily defeated by 340 votes to 33.

Party leader Tim Farron claimed the Labour leadership had written Mrs May a “blank cheque”. Mr Farron said: “Labour tonight have lost the right to be called the official opposition. This was the very moment that the country needed a bold and competent opposition. It also needed Conservative MPs who would put their country before their party. It didn’t get either.”