Theresa May’s controversial Brexit legislation has cleared its first parliamentary hurdle after a clutch of Labour MPs defied Jeremy Corbyn - and Tory ‘Remainer’ MPs backed the Government.
Just after midnight on Monday, MPs voted by 326 to 290 to give the EU (Withdrawal) Bill its Second Reading, as Conservatives such as Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke decided not to rebel against their own party.
But while the Tories remained united, Jeremy Corbyn faced a rebellion from seven of his own pro-Brexit MPs who voted with the Government, despite party orders to defeat the bill.
The Labour rebels were:
A further six Labour MPs, in seats with big Leave majorities, decided to abstain in the vote. The only Tory to abstain was Clarke.
The Government won with a majority of 36 and the bill is now set to return for further debate and votes next month.
But the while May said the result was “historic”, pro-EU Tory MPs scrambled after the vote to table new amendments insisting on a long ‘transition’ before Brexit kicks in properly.
With a dozen Conservatives backing the idea, she now faces the threat of a defeat when the legislation returns to the Commons in October - even if the DUP and Labour pro-Brext MPs support her.
After nearly nine hours of impassioned debate, the Government won majorities on the first two of three late-night votes to reject Labour amendments, to pass the bill’s Second Reading and to “programme” six days of further debate at Committee Stage.
May said: “Earlier this morning Parliament took a historic decision to back the will of the British people”.
Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson, said: “This is a dark day for the mother of parliaments. Labour rebels have handed the government sweeping anti-democratic powers.”
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer declared it was “a deeply disappointing result”.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill has been dubbed “the great power-grab” by its critics for the way it gives ministers sweeping powers to change the law without proper Parliamentary scrutiny.
Designed to transpose all current European Union law onto the British statute book ahead of Brexit in March 2019, the legislation will allow thousands of regulations to be copied without votes in either the Commons or Lords.
It repeals the 1972 act that took Britain into the European Economic Community and incorporates relevant EU rules and regulations into UK law instead.
Yet the bill also gives ministers so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers – named after the Tudor monarch who sidelined Parliament with his Royal proclamations - to avoid having votes on individual regulations.
Potential Tory rebels appeared to have been reassured by a concession offered by Justice Secretary David Lidington: a promise to set up a ‘triage’ system to improve MP scrutiny of various regulations, sorting significant changes from more mundane ones.
Brexit Secretary David Davis hailed the passage of the Second Reading, but attacked Labour for seeking to “frustrate” the will of those who voted to quit the EU in last year’s referendum.
Starmer said that the bill was not about Brexit but about ministers wanting to bypass scrutiny. May should scrap her “fatally flawed” bill and “drop it and start again” to build in necessary safeguards to allow Parliament more of a say, he said.
Tory MPs are set to put down amendments to the legislation at Committee Stage and ministers are expected to make some concessions.
But Labour MP David Lammy accused leading pro-EU Tory Anna Soubry of being “all bark, no action”, while fellow backbencher Rupa Huq said Conservatives were refusing to “stick their necks out” when needed most.
During the debate, a string of Labour MPs got up to warn of the scale of the “power grab” the legislation entailed.
Labour MP and former minister Chris Bryant warned of a “dangerous spiral of autocracy”, claiming that some of the clauses in the bill give ministers powers to amend law “by fiat”. “These are clauses Erdogan, Maduro and Putin would be proud of,” he said.
Labour’s former Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander added: “On the most important issue facing this country - our continued membership of the single market - this Bill could mean no direct vote in parliament, no say for MPs, no voice for our constituents. When we talk about a power grab, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.”