Theresa May avoids Brexit defeat as MPs back the EU Withdrawal bill

  • Theresa May manages to avoid a rebellion on the government’s central piece of Brexit legislation.
  • The EU withdrawal bill passes the Commons by 324 votes to 295.
  • The bill, which is designed to transfer EU law into UK law, will now pass to the Lords where the government expects stiff opposition to elements of the bill.
  • The bill is the first of at least nine Brexit-related bills set to be passed by the government.

LONDON – Theresa May avoided another defeat on key Brexit legislation on Wednesday evening after MPs voted to pass the EU (Withdrawal) Bill at its third reading.

The House of Commons voted in favour of the bill by 324 votes to 295.

It will now pass to the House of Lords later this month where elements of the bill will face stiff opposition from peers.

“We are pleased that the bill has successfully completed this stage of its passage through Parliament,” Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Wednesday evening.

He added: “This is a critical piece of legislation that aims to maximise certainty for individuals and businesses after our exit.”

The vast majority of Labour MPs voted against the bill tonight. However a Conservative rebellion was averted following a series of amendments made to the bill by the government.

Despite not voting against the bill, Conservative MPs raised a number of objections to the government’s Brexit policy.

Tory MP Justine Greening, who was removed as education secretary in May’s latest reshuffle, warned that a Brexit that “doesn’t work for young people” would not be “sustainable.”

“I represent a very young constituency here in London. And the bottom line is that, looking ahead, if Brexit doesn’t work for young people in our country, in the end, it will not be sustainable,” she said.

“When they take their place here, they will seek to improve or undo what we have done and make it work for them. So we do absolutely have a duty in this House to look ahead and ensure that whatever we get is sustainable and works for them.”

Greening’s Conservative colleague, Dominic Grieve MP, warned ministers that leaving the EU with no deal at the end of talks would be “The most catastrophic act perpetrated by a government in modern history.”

Fellow Conservative rebel Anna Soubry told MPs that while the bill in its current form was “not perfect,” the amendments secured by Grieve and others meant she was willing to support it at this stage.

Ministers braced for rebellion in the Lords

Brexit protest(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The legislation will now pass to the House of Lords where it will undergo a thorough examination, with peers widely expected to propose a large number of amendments to the bill.

The bill is designed to copy all EU law which currently affects the UK into national law, whereupon it can be subsequently amended or scrapped.

The government claims it will make Brexit a smooth process and prevent Britain from falling into a legal black hole upon leaving the European Union and its laws.

However, opponents have warned that it risks passing unprecedented powers to the government to rewrite Britain’s entire legal and regulatory framework without proper scrutiny.

These powers – dubbed “Henry VIII powers” by critics – would give the government to scrap workers rights and environmental protections that have been guaranteed through EU law.

“Take back control did not mean giving the extreme Brexiteers in Theresa May’s government the power to rip up workers’ rights behind closed doors,” shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer wrote in The Mirror.

The Scottish and Welsh governments are also concerned that the bill will allow the Conservative government to seize control over policy areas that they believe ought to be devolved to Holyrood and Cardiff.

MPs from across the House used the debate prior to the vote to warn the government that they are prepared to stand in the way of a hard Brexit in future votes.

Analysis: Tory mutineers could still inflict defeat on May

The result tonight was never in huge doubt. Whereas before Christmas 11 Tory “mutineers” inflicted a humiliating defeat on the government over an amendment calling for a “meaningful vote” on May’s Brexit deal, Tory whips never seriously feared a repeat of that experience at this stage of the bill.

Once leading ‘mutineer’ Dominic Grieve signalled in the debate earlier this week that he was not willing to repeat his pre-Christmas rebellion “if I can possibly avoid it,” then there was little chance that the government’s opponents would have the numbers to defeat May’s bill

However, while Tory rebel Remainers may have sat on their hands tonight, it’s clear that the battle is far from over for May in passing this bill.

As Grieve himself pointed out this week, the EU withdrawal bill will now pass to the Lords where peers, many of whom are leading lawyers, are likely to go to tear large strips out of the legislation.

In their sights will be powers designed to allow ministers to rewrite the UK’s entire legal framework after Brexit with little scrutiny from parliament. The wide-ranging aspects of these powers have long been a matter of concern in the second chamber and peers are unlikely to pass up the opportunity of amending them.

So while May avoided defeat tonight, the biggest battle for this bill could still lie ahead.

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