Two-Day Brexit debate
The first major Commons vote on the road towards the UK leaving the EU is to take place after MPs complete a marathon two-day debate on triggering Article 50.
At the end of the first day of the second reading debate on the bill, which went on until four minutes to midnight, almost 100 MPs had already spoken for and against.
The final speaker, Tory Eurosceptic David Nuttall, made the shortest speech of the day, declaring in a booming voice: “The people have spoken. This bill must be passed!”
Theresa May is assured of a large majority in favour of the Government’s bill to approve triggering Article 50, with Tory MPs and most Labour MPs set to vote for it.
But the Labour Party is badly split, with up to 60 of its backbenchers and a handful of rebel frontbenchers declaring they will defy their leader’s order to vote for the bill.
Towards the end of day one of the debate, one of its leading opponents, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, told MPs: “For my mind, the bottom line is this: that the Prime Minister has no mandate for the extreme Brexit she is pursuing.
“It was not on the ballot paper.”
But one of the leading campaigners for Brexit, Tory MP Steve Baker, said: “If we were to go ahead and refuse this bill, I believe that even our own party on this side would suffer grave consequences.
“It’s in all of our interests that this bill passes.”
He also – rather surprisingly – defended David Cameron, who called the referendum, saying: “My experience was that everything he did was motivated by the highest concerns for this country.”
Earlier during the debate, Labour’s divisions were laid bare when shadow Foreign Office minister Catherine West risked the sack by announcing she would vote against triggering Article 50.
Claiming it was the only way to make the Government listen, she said: “It’s not just about jobs and the economy.”It’s about our children, our grandchildren and about peace and prosperity.”
A few minutes later, Labour’s Jo Stevens, who quit as shadow Welsh secretary last week over Mr Corbyn’s order to vote for Article 50, said: “The referendum result last year felt like a body blow.
“The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech felt like the life-support machine being switched off and triggering Article 50 will for me feel like the funeral.”
She was followed by Labour’s former Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw, who said he would go against a three-line whip on a bill for the first time in nearly 20 years as an MP.
“This could be our only chance to prevent the hardest of Brexits, or to soften its blow,” he told MPs.
“I cannot and will not vote to destroy jobs and prosperity in my constituency.”
Early in the debate, the sole Tory MP set to rebel, the veteran pro-European Kenneth Clarke, was cheered and applauded by pro-Remain MPs as he sat down after his speech opposing the bill.
But Mr Clarke incensed Tory MPs by comparing Brexit to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland and said Enoch Powell would regard today’s Tory party as “anti-immigration”.
The debate will resume after Prime Minister’s Questions and later MPs will vote first on a Scottish National Party bid to block the bill, then on whether to give it a second reading and finally on a timetable motion for the bill’s committee stage next week.
More than 130 amendments – running to 85 pages – have already been tabled for the committee stage, which will take place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.
The bill then goes to the House of Lords on 20 February and is due to complete its passage through the Lords on 7 March, allowing Theresa May to meet her 31 March Article 50 deadline comfortably.
During the first day of the Commons debate, many MPs called on the Government to publish a white paper – promised by the Prime Minister at PMQs last week – before the committee stage.
Some MPs believe she could once again wrong foot Mr Corbyn by announcing at PMQs that she will do this, with publication of the white paper coming as early as this Thursday.
Opening the two-day debate with a croaky voice, the Brexit Secretary David Davis told MPs they were considering a very simple question: “Do we trust the people or not?”
Responding for Labour in a gloomy, downbeat speech, the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer provoked laughter from Conservative MPs when he admitted: “For the Labour Party this is a very difficult bill.”
The most bitter clash between Leave and Remain MPs came between two high-profile Tories, Remain campaigner Anna Soubry and leading Brexiteer Michael Gove.
Ms Soubry challenged Mr Gove: “Could he therefore please assure us that he still would be true to his claim as the leader of the Leave campaign that £350m will now be going to our NHS?
“Or does he agree with others, that actually that figure was always false and it was a lie?”
In reply, a flustered looking Mr Gove said: “I’ve no idea whether or not the word ‘lie’ is unparliamentary, but what I do know is that as someone who is not in the Government, I can’t deliver these sums.
“But what I can do is I can consistently argue, as I have, that when we take back control of the money that we currently give to the European Union, we can invest that money in the NHS.”