Brexit talks get go ahead as Theresa May is backed by MPs

MPs have given Theresa May their authority to formally begin Brexit in an overwhelming House of Commons vote.

Wednesday, 8th February 2017, 8:15 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 11:34 am
The vote was taken in the House of Commons in London. Photo by PA.

The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal Bill) was approved at third reading, its final Commons stage, after Jeremy Corbyn ordered his MPs to back it.

But the Labour leader was unable to prevent the resignation of senior shadow cabinet minister Clive Lewis, who quit the frontbench to vote against the Bill in defiance of a three-line whip.

MPs in the House of Commons as proposals to give Theresa May the power to start formal Brexit talks clear the Commons following overwhelming support. Photo by PA.

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The legislation, which will give the Prime Minister the authority to begin exit talks under Article 50 of the EU treaties, was passed by 494 votes to 122, majority 372.

The only North East MPs to vote against the bill were Newcastle members Catherine McKinnell and Chi Onwurah, who were among 52 Labour MPs to defy their leader's orders - that was an increase from the 47 MPs who opposed the legislation during its second reading last week.

Newcastle voted to remain in the EU, the only area in the region to do so and only with a 1% majority with 51%.

Sunderland was put in the spotlight when it became the first to return its results, with 61.3% of voters opting to leave, while in South Tyneside, 62% voted to leave and Hartlepool that figure stood at 69.5%.

MPs in the House of Commons as proposals to give Theresa May the power to start formal Brexit talks clear the Commons following overwhelming support. Photo by PA.

Former chancellor Ken Clarke was the sole Conservative MP to vote against the bill.

It will now have to pass through the House of Lords before Mrs May can invoke Article 50, which she has promised to do by April.

The simple two clause bill was passed without any changes after around 40 hours of debate in the Commons.

On Wednesday, the Government saw off the threat of a significant Tory rebellion over the rights of EU citizens already in the UK.

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 amendment put forward by Labour's Harriet Harman was defeated by 332 votes to 290, majority 42, after Home Secretary Amber Rudd sent a letter to Conservative MPs offering them assurances over the issue.

The Government has said it will treat EU nationals' status as a priority in Brexit negotiations and seek to strike a reciprocal agreement to also protect the rights of British expats in Europe as soon as possible.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who last week blamed a migraine for a failure to attend a key vote on the bill, backed the triggering of Article 50.

As Mr Lewis announced his resignation, Mr Corbyn appeared to leave the door open for his return to the shadow cabinet, remarking: "I wish Clive well and look forward to working with him in the future."

Asked if the comment meant Mr Lewis could return to the shadow cabinet at some point, a Labour source said they "wouldn't rule anything out".

Mr Lewis, touted by some as a potential future Labour leader, said he could not back the Bill given Norwich, in which his constituency lies, voted 56.2% to 43.8% to remain in the EU in June's referendum.

He 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.

"It is therefore with a heavy heart that I have decided to resign from the shadow cabinet.

"It has been a privilege to work with Jeremy Corbyn and be part of the shadow cabinet. I will continue to support our party and our leader from the backbenches to the very best of my ability."

Mr Corbyn said: "I would like to thank Clive for his work in the shadow cabinet, which has underlined what an asset he is to the Labour Party and our movement.

"I understand the difficulties MPs representing constituencies which voted Remain have in relation to the European Union Withdrawal Bill. MPs have a duty to represent their constituents as well as their party.

"However, the Labour Party respects the outcome of the EU referendum, so we have asked all Labour MPs to vote for the Bill at its third reading tonight.

"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."

A Government source warned peers not to delay the Bill's progress through the Lords.

"The Lords will face an overwhelming public call to be abolished if they now try and frustrate this Bill - they must get on and deliver the will of the British people," the source said.