May's Brexit law passes first hurdle

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to members of the Charity Commission for England and Wales at The Royal Society in London. (Dan Kitwood/Pool via AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to members of the Charity Commission for England and Wales at The Royal Society in London. (Dan Kitwood/Pool via AP)

London - Theresa May’s plan for taking Britain out of the European Union passed its first parliamentary hurdle as pressure mounted on her main political rival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, to clarify his stance on single market membership.

In a vote after midnight, lawmakers backed the prime minister’s repeal bill after her government promised to discuss critics’ concerns before they have to vote again. Labour has already proposed a first set of amendments. The focus now turns to Corbyn, who is due to address the Trades Union Congress in Brighton on Tuesday after sowing confusion over his position on Brexit.

The Brexit bill will formally end Britain’s EU membership and overturn the supremacy of European law in the country. It is controversial because it hands sweeping powers to ministers to change legislation as they see fit, without full scrutiny in Parliament.

Having lost her majority in the House of Commons in June’s election, May is vulnerable to rebellions from her own side and relies on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Helpfully for her, seven Labour lawmakers disobeyed Corbyn’s orders to vote against the bill, while another 17 abstained.

That puts Corbyn in the spotlight a day after hinting he may be open to trying to keep Britain inside the EU’s single market after Brexit, in an apparent shift in Labour’s ever-evolving position.

“There has to be a trade relationship with Europe, whether that’s formally in the single market or whether that’s an agreement to trade within the single market,” Corbyn told the BBC on Monday. “That’s open to discussion or negotiation.”

Henry VIII powers

He has spent most of his political career opposed to British membership of the EU, but was persuaded to campaign against Brexit in 2016 and has come under pressure from members of his own party and the trade unions, who wield great power over Labour.

In the meantime, May is inviting greater scrutiny over her own Brexit plans. The government is arguing it needs broad powers because hundreds of British laws will need to be corrected to remove references to the EU after Brexit.

But a succession of Conservative lawmakers joined the opposition to warn that these Henry VIII clauses - named after the 16th century Tudor king - need to be watered down at a later stage.

Within hours of the vote, Labour submitted a raft of amendments seeking to curtail the powers, return responsibilities to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and protect workers’ rights, environmental safeguards and equality laws.

The party also wants the terms and duration of any post-Brexit transition period to be decided by Parliament, rather than ministers.

“This is such a flawed bill that the prime minister should have dropped it and started again,” Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, said in a statement.

The bill “will need extensive amendment and improvement in a whole range of areas. This is likely to cause delays and division in Parliament, and the prime minister has nobody to blame but herself.”

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