LONDON -- Britain took a big step towards the European Union exit door on Friday when lawmakers gave preliminary approval to Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s EU divorce bill in a decisive vote that broke years of political deadlock over Brexit.
The House of Commons, with its Conservative ranks swollen after Johnson's election victory last week, voted 358-234 for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, clearing the way for the U.K. to leave the European Union next month.
Friday's vote was a moment of triumph for Johnson, who won a commanding parliamentary majority in last week’s general election on a promise to end more than three years of political gridlock and lead Britain out of the European Union on Jan. 31.
Jubilant Conservative lawmakers gathered around the prime minister in the House of Commons after the vote, getting him to sign their copies of the bill. Opposition lawmakers looked despondent.
“The election has produced a result: We will leave the EU at the end of January,” acknowledged pro-EU Liberal Democrat legislator Wera Hobhouse. “The battle to stop Brexit is over.”
The bill will receive more scrutiny and possible amendment next month when lawmakers return from a two-week holiday break, and it also has to be approved by Parliament’s unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords. But Johnson’s parliamentary majority means it is almost certain to become law in January. Britain would then leave the EU on Jan. 31.
Johnson said Friday that passing the bill would end the “acrimony and anguish” that has consumed the country since it voted in 2016 to leave the EU. Opponents argue that leaving will only trigger more uncertainty over Britain’s future trade relations with the bloc.
The U.K.'s departure will open a new phase of Brexit, as Britain and the EU race to strike new relationships for trade, security and a host of other areas by the end of 2020.
Johnson, however, painted Friday's vote as a moment of closure. Opening debate on the bill, he said, optimistically, that after Jan, 31, “Brexit will be done, it will be over.”
“The sorry story of the last 3 1/2 years will be at an end and we will be able to move forward together,” he said.
“This is a time when we move on and discard the old labels of ‘leave’ and ‘remain,’” Johnson added. “Now is the time to act together as one reinvigorated nation.”
Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. But previous attempts by Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, to pass a Brexit deal through the U.K. Parliament foundered as lawmakers objected to sections of the agreement and demanded a bigger say in the process.
Johnson’s election victory finally gives him the power to get his way.
The bill commits Britain to leaving the EU on Jan. 31 and to concluding trade talks with the bloc by the end of 2020. Trade experts and EU officials say striking a free trade deal within 11 months will be a struggle, but Johnson insists he won’t agree to any more delays, The Brexit bill has been amended to bar ministers from agreeing to extend the transition period with the EU.
That has set off alarm bells among business es, who fear that means the country will face a “no-deal” Brexit at the start of 2021. Economists say that would disrupt trade with the EU — Britain's biggest trading partner — and plunge the U.K. into recession.
Johnson said Friday he was confident of striking a “deep, special and democratically accountable partnership with those nations we are proud to call our closest friends” by the Brexit deadline.
He said extending the transition period would just prolong Brexit “acrimony and anguish ... a torture that came to resemble Lucy snatching away Charlie Brown’s football.”
For all Johnson's talk of “getting Brexit done” on Jan. 31, details of Britain's negotiating stance — and even who will lead the trade talks — remain unknown.
Armed with his 80-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, Johnson has stripped out parts of the Brexit bill that gave lawmakers a role in negotiating a future trade deal with the EU and required ministers to provide regular updates to Parliament. The clauses were added earlier in the year in an attempt to win opposition lawmakers’ support for the Brexit bill — backing that Johnson no longer needs.
A promise that workers’ rights will not be eroded after Brexit has also been removed from the bill, although the Conservative government says it will enshrine employment rights in separate legislation.
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Hilary Benn said Johnson's bill was “a gamble with our nation’s economy.”
“If he fails, the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit comes in just 12 months’ time,” he said.
All but a handful of opposition lawmakers voted against the bill. But even without their support, it is expected to complete its passage through Parliament in January, in time for Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc on Jan. 31.
The divorce deal also needs to be ratified by the European Parliament. European Parliament vice president Pedro Silva Pereira said officials expect that to happen by Jan. 29.
Very little will change immediately after Brexit. Britain will remain an EU member in all but name during the 11-month transition period that ends in December 2020.
Keen supporters of Brexit, who gather regularly with placards outside Parliament, hailed Friday's vote as historic.
“It’s the moment that we’ve longed for, it’s the moment that we’ve had to wait a very long time for," said Patricia Sharman. “It’s the people’s victory. Democracy reigns and I’m absolutely delighted and very emotional.”
But Peter Roberts, who wants to remain in the EU, said it was “a terrible time for our country.”
“There’s banners here saying ‘the people’s will,’ 'the people’s victory.” We should have got rid of all that kind of thought in the 1930s. I’m really afraid.”
Associated Press writer Jo Kearney contributed to this report.
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