LONDON — With a boisterous majority of Conservative lawmakers hooting and hurrahing behind him, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday won Parliament’s backing for his Brexit deal, allowing him to forge ahead with his promise that Britain will finally leave the European Union next month.
Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill should take the country out of the EU by the end of January, after expected approval in the House of Lords and final ratification in the weeks ahead. Then comes an 11-month “transition period” — an ambitiously tight time frame — to allow Britain and the EU to hammer out trade, security, migration and other aspects of their new relationship.
While campaigning, Johnson often boasted that the withdrawal deal he secured with European leaders in October was “oven ready.” On Friday, he urged lawmakers: “The oven is on. It is set at gas mark 4. We can have it done by lunch or late lunch.”
The vote result, tallied in the early afternoon, was 358 to 234. Gone are the late-night crunch votes that confronted Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May. Undermined, challenged and bucked by “remainers,” Tory rebels and arch-Brexiteers in her own party, she had to face the ignominy of seeing her Brexit deal repeatedly voted down in Parliament.
Johnson, too, faced a series of embarrassing Brexit-related defeats in the fall, when he faced a hung Parliament. But his landslide win in last week’s election put him in control.
Johnson has hailed his Brexit deal as his own creation. After Friday’s vote, inside the House of Commons chamber, the prime minister appeared to sign copies.
But it is approximately 95% his predecessor’s deal — with the exception that Johnson caved to European demands to find a way to protect at all cost a peace accord in Ireland.
Johnson did what May swore no British prime minister would do, which was to allow for a regulatory and customs border within the United Kingdom. In Johnson’s deal, that new border runs down the Irish Sea.
No matter. Johnson now has the votes, and he does not need to kowtow to his former governing partners in the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, who have complained the prime minister tossed them under the bus and that this deal endangers the union.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called the deal “terrible” and said his side would not back it. “This deal is a road map for the reckless direction for which the government and prime minister are determined to take the country,” he said.
Corbyn charged that Johnson’s vision for Brexit would be “used as a battering ram to drive us down the path of yet more deregulation and towards a toxic deal with Donald Trump.”
But Corbyn is on his way out and no longer in a position to change the path of his party or the country.
Six Labour members voted for Johnson’s Brexit bill, while more than 30 abstained.
There was a giddy, almost gloating sense in Johnson’s Conservation Party that a new era had begun. The opposition was defeated, demoralized — and old foes on Johnson’s right flank had been neutralized.
Conservative lawmaker Rachel Maclean ended her brief remarks, saying, “I want to wish everybody a very Merry Brexmas.” Arch-Brexiteer Mark Francois, a leader of European Research Group, which had so vexed the previous prime minister, said, “All I want to for Christmas is not EU”
Conservative Liam Fox got a loud cheer from his party’s benches when he took a dig at Hugh Grant, the British actor who campaigned for tactical voting to keep Conservatives out of power. “I say this in the spirit of the season,” Fox said. “I hope that even Hugh Grant will watch our seasonal offering this year, which is ‘Democracy, Actually,'” a play on Grant’s holiday classic film, “Love, Actually.”
There was grumbling — and marked distrust — from the opposition that Johnson’s government had deleted compromises that were in the bill before he won his whopping majority. The bill no longer has the same commitments on workers’ rights and environmental standards, or the guarantee that child migrants in Europe could reunite with family in Britain.
“I have just read the PM’s Brexit plan, and it has changed …. For the worse,” tweeted Lisa Nandy, a Labour lawmaker considered a possible contender for party leader.
The updated deal also sets what critics say is an unrealistically tight deadline to secure a new free trade deal.
European Parliament Vice President Pedro Silva Pereira told the BBC that 11 months to negotiate a complex trade deal “is unprecedented.”
“It is a different situation,” he said. “We come from a level of economic integration which has no comparison with other trade agreements that we’ve done before. But we also have a different and difficult issue to settle, which is the level of regulatory disalignment.”
Catherine Barnard, a professor of European law at Cambridge University, agreed that 11 months was an “incredibly short” time frame to negotiate a trade deal. She said she expects any trade deal reached by the end of 2020 to be very narrow, covering issues such as industrial goods, agriculture and food — with other issues left for a subsequent talks.
“Pretty thin gruel, but that’s likely all that can be negotiated in the short period of time that’s available,” she said.
Johnson answered that a tight deadline would focus minds and strengthen Britain’s bargaining position in Brussels.
In the rest of Europe, national leaders and the European Parliament both need to approve the withdrawal deal before it can come into force, a process that is likely to be uncontroversial but that will probably still take until the end of January.
Meanwhile, EU trade negotiators are sharpening their knives. Formal talks are expected to start in March.
EU leaders were mostly quiet in the aftermath of Friday’s parliamentary vote, but European Council President Charles Michel on Twitter called it an “important step.”
But he added that Britain needs to be willing to adhere closely to European regulations, known as the “level playing field,” to reach a trade deal with the 27-nation bloc. Johnson has vowed to break free from EU rules, a step Europeans say would force them to throw up barriers to British business that want to sell to the continent.
“A level playing field remains a must for any future relationship,” Michel wrote in his tweet.
Barnard explained: “The EU doesn’t want a big player right on its doorstep undercutting its standards and having lower labor costs and lower consumer protections and lower environmental standards.”
Ahead of the vote on Friday, Johnson emphasized the need to repair relationships within Britain. “This is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain.’ In fact, the very words seem tired to me as I speak them, as defunct as big-Enders and little-enders, or Montagues and Capulets at the end of the play.”
He continued: “Now is the time to act together as one reinvigorated nation, one United Kingdom, filled with renewed confidence in our national destiny and determined at last to take advantage of the opportunities that now lie before us.”
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The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.