‘Battle to stop Brexit is over’ as lawmakers OK initial bill
LONDON — Britain took a big step toward the European Union exit door Friday when lawmakers gave preliminary approval to Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s EU divorce bill in a decisive vote that broke years of political deadlock over Brexit.
The House of Commons, with its Conservative ranks swollen after Johnson’s election victory last week, voted 358-234 for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, clearing the way for the U.K. to leave the European Union next month.
Friday’s vote was a moment of triumph for Johnson, who won a commanding parliamentary majority in last week’s general election on a promise to end more than three years of political gridlock and lead Britain out of the European Union on Jan. 31.
Jubilant Conservative lawmakers gathered around the prime minister in the House of Commons after the vote, getting him to sign their copies of the bill. Opposition lawmakers looked despondent.
“The election has produced a result: We will leave the EU at the end of January,” acknowledged pro-EU Liberal Democrat legislator Wera Hobhouse. “The battle to stop Brexit is over.”
The bill will receive more scrutiny and possible amendment next month when lawmakers return from a two-week holiday break, and it also has to be approved by Parliament’s unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords. But Johnson’s parliamentary majority means it is almost certain to become law in January.
Britain would then leave the EU on Jan. 31.
Johnson said Friday that passing the bill would end the “acrimony and anguish” that has consumed the country since it voted in 2016 to leave the EU. Opponents argue that leaving will only trigger more uncertainty over Britain’s future trade relations with the bloc.
The U.K.’s departure will open a new phase of Brexit, as Britain and the EU race to strike new relationships for trade, security and a host of other areas by the end of 2020.
Johnson, however, painted Friday’s vote as a moment of closure. Opening debate on the bill, he said, optimistically, that after Jan, 31, “Brexit will be done, it will be over.”
“The sorry story of the last 31⁄2 years will be at an end and we will be able to move forward together,” he said.
Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. But previous attempts by Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, to pass a Brexit deal through the U.K. Parliament foundered as lawmakers objected to sections of the agreement and demanded a bigger say in the process.
Johnson’s election victory finally gives him the power to get his way.
The bill commits Britain to leaving the EU on Jan. 31 and to end trade talks with the bloc by the end of 2020. Trade experts and EU officials say striking a free trade deal within 11 months will be a struggle. The Brexit bill has been amended to bar ministers from extending the transition period with the EU.
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Hilary Benn said Johnson’s bill was “a gamble with our nation’s economy.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson focuses on the Brexit bill Friday in the House of Commons.