MPs hand Theresa May the starting gun on Brexit

Commons votes by 498 votes to 114 for the Article 50 legislation to clear its first stage - to raucous cheers from ecstatic Conservative MPs

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Britain has taken a decisive step towards leaving the European Union after MPs overwhelmingly gave Theresa May their backing to trigger the Article 50 exit clause.

In an historic moment – after almost 20 hours of debate - the Commons voted by 498 votes to 114 for the legislation to clear its first stage, to raucous cheers from ecstatic Conservative MPs.

The vote, a majority of 384, does not guarantee that Brexit will happen, because the Bill must yet be approved at later stages and is certain to be amended when it reaches the House of Lords.

However, Brexit supporters now believe momentum is firmly behind the Prime Minister’s timetable to invoke Article 50 next month – and to leave the EU two years later, in 2019.

The vote exposed Labour’s deep divisions over Brexit, with 47 MPs defying Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip to support the Bill. Two of his Shadow Cabinet members resigned and another 15 Labour MPs abstained.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was hit by his own mini-revolt, when two of the nine Lib Dem MPs failed to oppose Article 50. Just one Conservative – Ken Clarke – voted against.

What is Article 50?

Immediately after the vote, a delighted Iain Duncan Smith said: “The inevitable has happened.”

The former Cabinet minister pointed to a succession of treaties which had turned the EU into a “federal union”, adding: “They had left us, it was just a matter of time before the UK realised that was the case.”

But Mr Clarke said: “The battle has only just started – we are in a very unreal, silly world since the rather startling result of the referendum.”

The veteran hinted that many MPs regretted their vote, adding: “There are plenty of members of the House that agreed with me about the disastrous nature of the decision that has been taken.”

Ms May was forced to draw up the Bill after the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament must give its consent to triggering Article 50 – but the vote suggested it will prove little hindrance.

An hour before the vote, Jeremy Corbyn was rocked by the twin resignations of two more of his Shadow Cabinet, Rachael Maskell (Environment) and Dawn Butler (Diverse Communities).

It means three of his top team have quit over his backing for Article 50 - Jo Stevens (Shadow Wales Secretary) went last week – with Clive Lewis (Business) expected to follow.

The Labour leader hinted at a quick return for Ms Maskell and Ms Butler, saying: “They are great assets to the Labour Party and to our movement.”

Mr Corbyn said he understood the “difficulties” for MPs in Remain-voting constituencies, but added: “It is right that the Labour Party respects the outcome of the referendum on leaving the European Union.”

The vote came after Ms May confirmed that a long-promised white paper – setting out her Brexit plans in greater detail – will finally be published tomorrow.

A key demand of pro-EU MPs, Downing Street said it would “reflect the Government's plan for Brexit as the PM set out in her speech on our negotiating objectives”.

Ms May has been criticised for holding the white paper back until after tonight’s vote – and for refusing to say it will fully flesh out her strategy, beyond her speech last month.

Earlier, the UK's former ambassador to the EU warned the Brexit negotiations are likely to descend into “name-calling” and “fist-fighting” before any agreement can be reached.

The other member states believe Brexit will “explode a bomb” under EU budgets and are determined to extract a large sum from the UK as a key priority in the withdrawal talks, Sir Ivan Rogers told MPs.

The EU Commission has already said it will demand an exit bill of £34-£51 billion, for outstanding liabilities, before it agrees to talk about future trade.

Theresa May announces Brexit white paper

During the debate, George Osborne said German and French political leaders have told him they are not interested in making the economy the priority in the agreement they offer the UK.

He told MPs: “It is absolutely clear that, while they understand that Britain is a very important market for their businesses, their priority is to maintain the integrity of the remaining 27 members of the European Union.

“They are not interested in a long and complex, hybrid agreement with the United Kingdom.

“So, therefore, both sides at the moment are heading for a clean break from the European Union for the United Kingdom.”

A succession of Labour MPs rose to add their names to the list defying Mr Corbyn by voting against the Bill’s second reading– Chris Bryant, Madeleine Moon, Kevin Brennan, Daniel Zeichner and Stella Creasey.

One, Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle, was ordered to apologise by the Speaker after saying the Government was “full of bastards”.

Mr Coyle said: “Former prime minister John Major referred to the like of the former secretary of state for work and pensions [Iain Duncan Smith] as bastards.

“He could not have known that his party would become a whole Government full of bastards, who are absolutely causing economic damage for my constituents and for the whole country.”

Another Labour rebel, Ian Murray, the party's only MP in Scotland, said: "It's with a heavy heart that I will vote against triggering Article 50.

“But I will do so in the knowledge that I can walk down the streets of Edinburgh South and look at my constituents in the eye, and say to them I've done everything I possibly can to protect their jobs, livelihoods and the future for their family.”

The vote is far from the end of the process. Next week, there will be three days of line-by-line scrutiny in a Bill committee, at which MPs will attempt to shape the Brexit process.

Most important, Labour is demanding a “meaningful vote” in Parliament on the final Brexit deal – early enough for Ms May to seek better terms if hers are rejected by MPs.

However, Mr Corbyn has said he will expect his MPs to vote the Bill through its final reading, even if all his amendments are thrown out.

It will then go to the House of Lords, with the intention it will receive Royal Assent in early March, allowing the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 as she heads to an EU summit on March 8 and 9.

The Labour leader has not said what action he will take against his junior frontbenchers who rebelled. A source said: “Any discipline issues relating to debates and the whipping will be dealt with later.”

Earlier, MPs rejected an SNP amendment to deny the Bill a second reading because of unanswered questions about the impact of Brexit on Scotland and the devolution settlement – by 336 votes to 100. 

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