The first stage of Brexit was completed when MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill authorising the Theresa May government to begin the process to exit the European Union, as the promised white paper on the issue was published on Thursday.
The white paper reiterated the 12 key objectives outlined by May during her major speech on January 17. Brexit secretary David Davis said the country’s “best days are still to come” outside the EU, but the opposition Labour said the document “says nothing”.
The white paper mentions the objective of taking back control of laws, particularly those relating to immigration, and repeats May’s declaration that Britain will leave the European Single Market and the customs union.
It mentions India as one of the top 20 countries for fastest growth in UK exports of goods and services in 2005-2014 period, adding: “We have started discussions on future trade ties with countries like Australia, New Zealand and India.”
On Wednesday evening, the MPs voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill authorising the government to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to leave the EU, but it faces several hoops and amendments in parliament in the coming weeks.
May plans to initiate Article 50's two-year process by the end of March. The bill will now move to the committee stage where Labour and other parties plan to table a large number of amendments that could delay its passing on to the House of Lords, where the ruling Conservatives do not have a majority.
The bill’s passage in the House of Commons (498 in favour; 114 against) was marked by deep divide across and within parties, with Labour demonstrating the most tensions. As many as 47 Labour MPs – including at least two whips – voted against its three-line whip to vote for the bill.
Those who defied the party whip included senior MP Virendra Sharma and several members of leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Those who voted against the bill were from constituencies that voted to remain in the EU during last year’s referendum.
Corbyn, who had defied the party whip several times before becoming the leader, said: “MPs have a duty to represent their constituents as well as their party, and I understand the difficulties that MPs for constituencies which voted Remain face.”
The only Conservative to vote against the party government’s bill was the veteran pro-EU MP Ken Clarke. Before the voting, May conceded to the demand by opposition and some ruling MPs to publish a white paper on its strategy on Brexit.
The white paper was due to be published on Thursday, but sources said it was unlikely to reveal more than what May had laid out in a major speech on January 17, when she spoke about 12 priorities, including on the sensitive issue of immigration.
George Osborne, chancellor in the David Cameron government, noted on Wednesday during the debate that May had chosen to privilege immigration instead of Britain’s membership of the EU. The public could expect a “bitter” divorce from the EU, he said.
If the Brexit bill’s passage through parliament is on schedule and May formally notifies Brussels by initiating Article 50 by the end of March, the exit process is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.