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Great Britain

Brexit: parliament passes withdrawal agreement bill by 124 majority

Parliament has passed a historic milestone towards leaving the European Union, backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill by a thumping majority of 124, a week after the Conservatives won a landslide victory in the general election.

After comfortably passing its second reading by 358 votes to 234, the withdrawal agreement bill is on track to complete its passage through both houses of parliament in time to allow Britain to leave the European Union at the end of January.

The clear support for the bill signalled a decisive break with the parliamentary gridlock that marked the past two years.

Opening the debate on his bill on Friday morning, the prime minister called on the British public to discard the labels of leave and remain.

“We come together as a new parliament to break the deadlock and finally to get Brexit done,” Johnson said.

He said the electorate’s decision to press ahead with leaving the EU “must not be seen as a victory for one party over another, or one faction or another. This is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of leave and remain.”

In a characteristic literary aside, Johnson claimed the terms were “as defunct as Big-Enders and Little-Enders, and Montagues and Capulets at the end of the play” – terms from Gulliver’s Travels and Romeo and Juliet respectively.

Responding to Johnson, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, confirmed his party would continue to oppose the bill – though some Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet members, have argued that the election result means they should support it and move on.

Quick guide

How is Boris Johnson's Brexit deal different from Theresa May's?

The new Brexit deal is essentially the old Brexit deal with a new chapter on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a few key tweaks to the political declaration. Here is a link to the full text.

The backstop is replaced

The backstop has essentially been replaced by a full stop whereby Northern Ireland remains aligned to the EU from the end of the transition period for at least four years. A change can only happen if it is voted on by the Stormont assembly.

Consent

Stormont will have a key role in future Brexit arrangements. And if there is cross-community support to remain aligned to the EU rather than the UK the consent will hold for eight years.

The arrangements in this deal will automatically kick in for a mandated four years if there is a breakdown in trade talks, so it remains a “backstop” but with a permanent tinge.

That four-year period will start at the end of December 2020.

Two months before the end of the four-year period, that is October 2024, Stormont will be asked to vote on whether to remain aligned to the EU in ways outlined by this deal or not.

Checks on border, ports and airports

Under the deal, the UK and the EU are “underlining their firm commitment to no customs and regulatory checks or controls and related physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

Future trade deals

The EU and the UK will aim for a zero-tariff deal with unlimited quotas. The entire UK, including Northern Ireland, will be free to sign trade deals. The line in the political declaration that “the United Kingdom will consider aligning with union rules in relevant areas” in any future trade talks has been ditched.

Customs

Northern Ireland will remain legally in the UK customs territory but practically in the EU customs unions. There will therefore be no customs checks on the border but tariffs will be payable on certain commercial goods.

No customs duties will be payable on “personal property” being transited from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That protects online shopping and all items bought for personal rather than commercial use.

Customs duties will be payable on goods imported from the UK for commercial use unless it can be demonstrated that the goods remain in Northern Ireland or are for personal use, as above.

A system of rebates will allow importers to be reimbursed.

West/east trade

The commitment to frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is restated.

VAT

EU law on VAT will apply in Northern Ireland.

Single electricity market

The island of Ireland is considering a single market for electricity so homes in Northern Ireland can get their energy from a supplier in Northern Ireland or the republic. There were fears this could be disrupted by Brexit. Under the Johnson deal, the provisions of union law remain so nothing will change.

Level playing field

This guarantees that the UK will remain in line with EU conventions on climate, environment and workers rights in a future trade agreement.

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

Corbyn said: “This deal will be used as a battering ram to drive us down the path towards more deregulation and towards a toxic deal with Donald Trump that will sell out our NHS and push up the price of medicines. We remain certain there is a better and fairer way for Britain to leave the EU.”

However, the Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck signalled that she would support the bill, saying that after last week’s general election result, it was time to put an end to “opposition for opposition’s sake”.

The bill, which was published on Thursday, had been stripped of a series of promises the government had made previously in an attempt to get it through parliament before the election, including on workers’ rights.

Johnson insisted Britain’s right to make its own decisions on these issues was a key benefit of Brexit. “We will take advantage of these new freedoms to legislate in parallel on the environment, on workers’ and on consumer rights,” he said.

“The very essence of the opportunity of Brexit is that we will no longer outsource these decisions. With renewed national confidence, we will take those decisions ourselves and answer to those who sent us here.

“This house should never doubt its ability to pioneer standards for the fourth industrial revolution, just as it did for the first.”

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