By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson won approval for his Brexit deal in parliament on Friday, the first step toward fulfilling his election pledge to deliver Britain’s departure from the European Union by Jan. 31 after his landslide victory.
Lawmakers voted by 358 to 234 to pass the second reading of the legislation, underlining Johnson’s large majority in parliament that should ensure a smooth ratification of the divorce deal to implement Britain’s biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.
More than three years since Britain voted to exit the EU in a 2016 referendum, the deep uncertainty over Brexit has now been replaced by a firm deadline of the end of January. Only after that will the prime minister face talks to secure a trade deal with the bloc and another target date of the end of next year.
Getting “the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas” was the main aim for Johnson showing that, unlike his predecessor Theresa May who was thwarted in parliament, he now has free rein to drive Brexit forward despite continued criticism from opposition lawmakers.
“This is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ … now is the time to act together as one reinvigorated nation, one United Kingdom,” Johnson told parliament before the vote.
“Now is the moment to come together and write a new and exciting chapter in our national story, to forge a new partnership with our European friends, to stand tall in the world, to begin the healing for which the whole people of this country yearn.”
The final stages of ratification will take place after Christmas, with the lower house of parliament having until Jan. 9 to approve the legislation, or Withdrawal Agreement Bill, giving it just over three weeks to then pass through the upper house and receive Royal Assent.
The European Commission said it was ready to take formal steps to adopt the deal on its side too.
TRADE TALKS TO COME
After leaving, Britain will need to secure new trading arrangements with the EU – which the prime minister said would see the country agree a trade deal with no alignment to the bloc’s rules.
In a change to the bill, Johnson made it illegal to extend those talks beyond the end of next year.
European Council President Charles Michel said a level playing field on rules and standards “remains a must” for any future relationship.
While Johnson has the support of his 365 Conservative lawmakers in the 650-seat lower house, some opposition members criticized him for removing the opportunity for parliament to have oversight over his negotiating priorities in the next phase of talks, and for getting rid of workers’ protections.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described it as “terrible”.
“This deal does not bring certainty for communities or for business or for the workforce, in fact it does the opposite and hardwires the risk of a no-deal Brexit next year,” he said.
Just a week after he won the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, Johnson has set out an ambitious government program, with securing Brexit at the top of his agenda to repay the trust of voters.
Hoping to satisfy the demands of voters in northern and central England who broke their tradition of backing the Labour Party to support him, he has also pledged more funding to the state health service, education and policing.
“Today we will deliver on the promise we made to the people and get the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas,” he said in comments before the vote. “Next year will be a great year for our country.”
(Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alex Richardson)