After seven months of debating and deliberating, it’s official. The British government will trigger Article 50 by the 31st of March this year, after an overwhelming majority of MPs voted to pass the landmark ‘Brexit Bill’. This will formally set in motion the process by which the UK can negotiate its exit from the European Union.
With much time and money wasted on appealing the High Court judgement, the government respected British parliamentary democracy by consulting the Commons on the 1st February. Many MPs made clear the difficulty they had in voting for something they fundamentally disagreed with, with one member exclaiming ‘suicide’, as the votes were calculated. There was little to be worried about however, as 498 MPs voted with the government and just 114 votes were cast in opposition.
The dissenters were composed largely of members from the SNP, the Liberal Democrats (2 abstainers), Plaid Cymru and 47 Labour rebels who voted in defiance of Corbyn’s three-line whip. Only former Chancellor, Ken Clarke, did the same in the Conservative ranks. Emotion was high throughout the debate and Clarke’s referral to Enoch Powell, best known for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, seemed particularly poignant given the anti-immigrant rhetoric that polarised the referendum. Theresa May’s original concern about going to Parliament seems to have been unfounded as it was a comfortable day for her government. Not least because Labour supported the bill.
Jeremy Corbyn’s imposition of a three-line whip caused a stir within the Labour party and yet again he will be recruiting for his revolving door shadow cabinet. The irony of compelling MPs loyalty was surely not lost on the former backbench rebel-in-chief, who has defied the labour whip over 500 times in his 34 years in Parliament. Although largely viewed as a lukewarm supporter of the Remain campaign, Corbyn was firm on respecting the democratic mandate of the British public, and for this he should be applauded. However, a fifth of his party exposed his chronic lack of authority.
Most embarrassingly for Corbyn, three Labour whips, whose job is to ensure party loyalty, Vicky Foxcroft, Thangam Debonnaire and Jeff Smith, ignored their leaders’ instructions. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that 44 others in the party failed to toe the line. These included four members of the shadow cabinet and some high-profile MPs such as Corbyn’s former leadership rival, Owen Smith. Ultimately the Labour votes made little difference to the passing of the bill, but Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to command loyalty from the PLP again exposes the weaknesses of his leadership. Tom Watson has already suggested that the shadow cabinet dissenters could return within months, and it all serves to highlight the desperate state of the opposition.
Following the comfortable passing of this Bill, it will go to the committee stage, where it will be scrutinized and amendments will be proposed and debated.
Photograph: Garry Knight via flickr.