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Brexit bill exposes sharp divides in UK parties

MPs sat until midnight on Tuesday to debate the bill authorising the Theresa May government to initiate the process of exiting the European Union. India figured prominently in the debates.

world Updated: Feb 02, 2017 01:14 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Conservative MP Ken Clarke speaks in parliament during the debate to approve triggering the formal process of leaving the EU.
Conservative MP Ken Clarke speaks in parliament during the debate to approve triggering the formal process of leaving the EU. (AFP)

India and the enigmatic Tory Enoch Powell of “rivers of blood” fame figured prominently in the House of Commons as MPs sat until midnight on Tuesday to debate the bill authorising the Theresa May government to initiate the process of exiting the European Union.

The bill is expected to be passed late on Wednesday evening, but the debate highlighted deep divisions among and within parties. It is later expected to face an even rougher ride in the House of Lords, where the ruling Conservatives do not have a majority.

One of the most passionate speeches was by the veteran Conservative leader, Ken Clarke, who is opposed to the bill brought by his party's government. May has announced her intention to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to exit the EU by the end of March.

Admitting to some cynicism, Clarke reiterated his long-held position that EU membership was good, and questioned the presumption that countries were lining up to initiate free trade after Britain leaves the EU. He regretted the situation the Conservative Party found itself in now.

 In a speech that saw the house breaking convention and applauding it, Clarke said: “I feel the spirit of my former colleague, Enoch Powell — I rather respected him, aside from one or two of his extreme views — who was probably the best speaker for the Eurosceptic cause I ever heard in this House of Commons.”

“If he were here, he would probably find it amazing that his party had become Eurosceptic and rather mildly anti-immigrant, in a very strange way, in 2016. Well, I am afraid that, on that issue, I have not followed it, and I do not intend to do so.”

Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech is considered the most controversial political address in contemporary Britain, delivered in Birmingham in the context of rising immigration from India and other Commonwealth countries.

 Debunking claims made during the campaign by the Brexit camp, Clarke said: “Apparently, when we follow the rabbit down the hole, we will emerge in a wonderland where, suddenly, countries throughout the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that we were never able to achieve as part of the European Union.”

“Nice men like President (Donald) Trump and President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan are impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access. Let me not be too cynical; I hope that that is right. I do want the best outcome for the United Kingdom from this process. No doubt somewhere a hatter is holding a tea party with a dormouse in the teapot.”

Clarke, who held several cabinet positions in Conservative governments over the years, recalled that his political career coincided with British involvement with the EU.

“I started over 50 years ago, supporting Harold Macmillan’s application to join. I helped to get the majority cross-party vote for the European Communities Act 1972, before we joined in 1973, and it looks like my last Parliament is going to be the Parliament in which we leave, but I do not look back with any regret,” he said.

Mentioning India, MPs such as Margeret Beckett and Emma Reynolds recalled that during May’s recent visit, Indian interlocutors were keener to talk about visa and immigration than free trade. The government was wrong to assume that free trade deals are only about trade, Reynolds said.