The British Government remains determined to trigger negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union by the end of March, Brexit Secretary David Davis has told the House of Commons
British MPs are set to debate the EU (Notification On Withdrawal) Bill over two full days, concluding with a vote on second reading on Wednesday evening.
The British Government had resisted a vote, but was forced to seek Parliament’s approval for its plans by a Supreme Court ruling last week.
But Mr Davis warned them at the outset they would not be able to vote to block Brexit, telling them the “point of no return” had already passed.
Following the vote for Brexit in last June’s referendum, Mr Davis said the only question now before Parliament was: “Do we trust the people or not?”
With Labour having said they will not seek to block the triggering of Article 50 – marking the start of the two-year Brexit process – the Bill is expected to clear its first parliamentary hurdle relatively easily.
But Speaker John Bercow selected for debate a Scottish National Party amendment which would delay Article 50 on the grounds that the British Government has failed to provide for consultation with devolved administrations, to publish a White Paper on its negotiating strategy or to answer a range of questions about the implications of withdrawal from the single market, and has not assured MPs of a meaningful vote at the end of the negotiation process.
Opening the Commons debate for the British Government, Mr Davis said: “This is not a Bill about whether the UK should leave the EU or indeed how it should do it.
“It is simply about Parliament empowering the Government to implement a decision already made, a point of no return already passed.
“We asked the people of the UK if they wanted to leave the EU. They decided they did. So at the core of this Bill lies a very simple question. Do we trust the people or not?
“The democratic mandate is clear. The electorate voted for a government to give them a referendum, Parliament then voted to hold the referendum, the people voted in that referendum and we are now honouring the result of that referendum, as we said we would.”
Mr Davis said the Bill of just two tightly-drawn clauses was a “straightforward” piece of legislation which implemented the referendum result while respecting the Supreme Court judgment.
He told MPs: “We will respect the will of the people and implement their will by March 31.”
Mr Davis’s Labour shadow Keir Starmer said the Bill was “very difficult” for his party, which campaigned for Remain in the referendum, but saw two-thirds of its constituencies vote to leave.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been struggling to contain a revolt against his decision to impose a three-line whip ordering Labour MPs to vote for the Bill, with shadow ministers Jo Stevens and Tulip Siddiq quitting in protest and other frontbenchers threatening to oppose it even if it costs their jobs.
Keir told the Commons: “Although we are fiercely internationalist and fiercely pro-European, we are in the Labour Party above all democrats… As democrats, our party has to accept the result (of the referendum) and it follows that the Prime Minister shouldn’t be blocked from starting Article 50 negotiations.”
But he urged MPs to respect the anxiety of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, and said he hoped to see “a good deal less of the gloating from those who campaigned to leave than we’ve seen in the past”.
“Above all, it is our duty to secure an outcome that is not just for the 52% or the 48%, but for the 100%,” said Keir.
Veteran Conservative Europhile Kenneth Clarke said he would vote against Article 50, telling MPs: “I believe it is in the national interest for the United Kingdom to be a member of the European Union, I believe we have benefited from that position for the last 45 years and I believe future generations will benefit if we actually succeed in remaining a member of the European Union.”
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond told MPs the British Government’s decision to abandon membership of the European single market before negotiations had even begun had left the UK in a “position of weakness” in its desperate need for trade deals with other countries, leading to Mrs May’s “abasement” before US President Donald Trump last week.
But Mr Davis retorted that Mr Salmond’s analysis was “almost exactly the opposite” of the real situation.