British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the UK House of Commons in London on December 20 2019. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JESSICA TAYLOR
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the UK House of Commons in London on December 20 2019. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JESSICA TAYLOR

London — UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson won approval for his Brexit deal in parliament on Friday, the first step towards fulfilling his election pledge to deliver Britain’s departure from the EU by January 31 after his landslide victory.

Lawmakers voted by 358 to 234 to pass the second reading of the legislation, underlining Johnson’s large majority in parliament, which should ensure a smooth ratification of the divorce deal to implement Britain’s biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.

More than three years since Britain voted to exit the EU in a 2016 referendum, the deep uncertainty over Brexit has now been replaced by the firm deadline of the end of January. Only after that will the prime minister face talks to secure a trade deal with the bloc and another target date of the end of 2020.

Getting “the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas” was the main aim for Johnson showing that, unlike his predecessor Theresa May, he now has free rein to drive Brexit forward despite continued criticism from opposition lawmakers.

“This is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of Leave and Remain ... now is the time to act together as one re-invigorated nation, one UK,” Johnson told parliament before the vote. “Now is the moment to come together and write a new and exciting chapter in our national story, to forge a new partnership with our European friends, to stand tall in the world, to begin the healing for which the whole people of this country yearn.”

The final stages of ratification will take place after December 25, with the lower house of parliament having until January 9 to approve the legislation, or Withdrawal Agreement Bill, giving it just more than three weeks to then pass through the upper house and receive royal assent.

Trade talks to come

After leaving, Britain will need to secure new trading arrangements with the EU — which the prime minister said would see the country agree a trade deal with no alignment to the bloc’s rules. In a change to the bill, Johnson made it illegal to extend those talks beyond the end of 2020.

However, while Johnson has the support of his 365 Conservative lawmakers in the 650-seat lower house, some opposition members criticised him for removing the opportunity for parliament to have oversight over his negotiating priorities in the next phase of talks, and for getting rid of workers’ protections.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described it as “terrible” and said his party would not support the bill. “This deal does not bring certainty for communities or for business or for the workforce — in fact it does the opposite and hardwires the risk of a no-deal Brexit in 2020,” he said.

Just a week after he won the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, Johnson has set out an ambitious government programme, with securing Brexit at the top of his agenda to repay the trust of voters.

Hoping to satisfy the demands of voters in northern and central England, who broke their tradition of backing the Labour Party to support him, he has also pledged more funding to the National Health Service (NHS), education and policing.

“Today we will deliver on the promise we made to the people and get the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas,” Johnson said in comments before the vote. “2020 will be a great year for our country.” 

Reuters