LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May overcame a major Brexit hurdle as her bill to transfer the body of EU law onto the U.K. statute books progressed with the support of a majority of MPs.
A rebellion by seven Labour MPs who defied leader Jeremy Corbyn’s orders to vote down the new law helped ensure the EU (Withdrawal) Bill comfortably passed a second reading with a majority of 36, meaning it progresses to the next stage in the law-making process where it is scrutinized line-by-line in committees.
Conservative rebels gave the government the benefit of the doubt in this early stage in the law-making process, but the prime minister still faces an uphill battle to get the bill, which will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act that took the U.K. into the European Community and later the EU, into law. A raft of Conservative MPs vowed to attempt to curb temporary powers included in the bill in “committee stage” — when bills are scrutinized by a smaller group of MPs who vote on specific sections and add amendments — before it returns to the floor of the House of Commons for its report stage in October, where the amended bill can be debated and further amendments proposed.
In a statement following the vote, Steve Baker, the minister for exiting the European Union, said the government would “look with the utmost seriousness at the amendments that are tabled.”
He said: “It is essential that we work together to deliver a bill that ensures a functioning legal system outside the EU.”
While May survived the early parliamentary Brexit skirmish, with MPs concluding two full days debating the principles of the bill Monday night, she faces many more controversial tests in the months ahead. With many of her party at odds over the shape of Britain’s post-Brexit future on issues like immigration and the economy, she could face much tighter votes than the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which is seen a crucial to a “smooth” Brexit.
May also faces another key vote Tuesday to ensure the government has a majority at committee stage. The make-up of committee usually follows the composition of the House of Commons, but the Conservative Party lost its majority in June. The government argues that because of its deal with Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs, it has a majority in the Commons, so it should also have a majority at committee stage. Its critics say the plan amounts to rigging the system.
A number of Conservatives joined the opposition in voicing concerns during the debate of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill about the fact it gives the government temporary powers to make secondary legislation, enabling corrections to be made to the laws, a move described by former Tory Minister Anna Soubry as a “power grab.”
Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said the fact the bill passed was “deeply disappointing” as it was “an affront to parliamentary democracy and a naked power grab by government ministers.”
He added: “Labour will seek to amend and remove the worst aspects from the bill as it passes through parliament. But the flaws are so fundamental it’s hard to see how this bill could ever be made fit for purpose.”
Speaking during the debate, Derek Thomas, the Tory MP for St Ives, said the draft legislation was the “only game in town” to achieve a “smooth” Brexit by March 2019, but suggested changes could be made to the bill at a later stage and it should not hand ministers and their civil servants “the freedom to do as they please.”
Soubry, one of the most vocal advocates of a soft Brexit in May’s party, said that while the transfer of regulations, directives and law was necessary, her “biggest concern” was the “power grab” by ministers with very little, if any, influence for debate in the chamber and decision-making in the House of Commons.
In a statement issued immediately following the vote, the prime minister said parliament had taken a “historic decision” to back the will of the British people and vote for a bill which gave “certainty and clarity ahead of our withdrawal from the European Union.
“Although there is more to do, this decision means we can move on with negotiations with solid foundations and we continue to encourage MPs from all parts of the U.K. to work together in support of this vital piece of legislation,” she said.
The bill passed with 326 votes in favor and 290 against.