Johnson’s historic Brexit bill victory paves way for EU departure
Boris Johnson secured a historic parliamentary victory on Friday that paves the way for Britain’s departure from the EU on January 31 after three years of bitter debate.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which enshrines in British law the divorce deal struck between London and Brussels in October, passed the House of Commons by 358-234, a result made possible by Mr Johnson’s crushing election win earlier this month.
The toughened-up new bill has made a softer Brexit less likely because it prohibits extending the UK’s transition period beyond 2020. The British prime minister said the country was now “one step closer to getting Brexit done”.
Mr Johnson has tried to scotch the idea that his big Commons majority would allow him to marginalise hardline Eurosceptic MPs and push for a softer trade deal, with more alignment on Brussels regulations and a longer transition.
The draft legislation will still face further scrutiny in the Commons and Lords in January, but it is expected to pass all of its parliamentary stages ahead of the UK’s scheduled departure date from the EU at the end of next month.
Mr Johnson and his advisers now hope that the very word “Brexit” will fade from the country’s vocabulary, even though painful negotiations will follow next year on a future UK-EU trade deal.
“This is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of Leave and Remain — in fact the very words seem tired to me,” Mr Johnson told MPs as they prepared to vote on his Withdrawal Agreement bill.
“This bill, and this juncture in our national story, must not be seen as a victory for one party or one faction over another,” he said.
Mr Johnson’s claim that Brexit can be “done” in January 2020 may turn out to be heroically optimistic given the talks to come, but the prime minister ended the parliamentary year in a commanding position. He began 2019 as a Conservative backbench MP and ended it as prime minister with a majority of 80.
The mood in the House of Commons on Friday was far less tense than the fractious atmosphere over Brexit before the election, when Mr Johnson, and Theresa May before him, tried to push Brexit legislation through a hostile parliament.
The bill puts into British legislation the exit deal struck by the prime minister with the EU27 in October, covering a so-called £39bn “divorce payment”, citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland and a transition period.
Mr Johnson told MPs that setting a firm deadline for a new trade deal would “strengthen our negotiating position” and that “drift and dither means more acrimony and more anguish”.
Other concessions made to opposition MPs before the election, including new protections for workers’ rights, have also been stripped from the bill. Mr Johnson said they would be covered in separate legislation.
The bill also provides for British courts lower than the Supreme Court to reconsider European Court of Justice rulings that will have been retained in British law after Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, had instructed his party’s MPs to oppose the bill. He said there was “a better and fairer way” to respect the result of the 2016 referendum. A total of six Labour MPs rebelled and voted for Mr Johnson’s deal while there were 32 Labour abstentions.