Brexit has begun. After decades of debate, years of acrimony in the ruling Conservative Party, months of brutal brinksmanship in parliamentary corridors and hours of debate this week, British MPs have approved the first tiny step in the lengthy process of Britain leaving the European Union.
There are many hurdles ahead, probably thousands of hours of debate in the UK, years of negotiations for prime minister Theresa May with friends and rivals around the European Union as she seeks a deal – and possibly as long as a decade of administrative adjustments as the country extricates itself from the EU.
Today, MPs in the House of Commons, Britain’s lower house, voted by a majority of 384 to allow May to get negotiations under way.
They backed the government’s European Union Bill, supported by the Labour leadership, by 498 votes to 114.
The Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrat leadership opposed the bill, while 47 Labour MPs and Conservative ex-chancellor (finance minister) Ken Clarke rebelled against their parties’ instructions.
The bill now faces further scrutiny in the Commons and the House of Lords before it can become law.
But this is only the first step. A week ago, the Supreme Court decided MPs and lords must have a say before Article 50, the formal notice that Britain intends to leave the EU, could be triggered.
It rejected the government’s argument that May had sufficient powers to trigger Brexit without consulting Parliament.
The so-called Article 50 Bill, mandated by the court, is next cab off the rank. It’s expected that the Conservative Leader of the House, David Lidington, will announce the timing for consideration of that as early as tomorrow. Debates could begin next week.
Such a rapid process would amount to a telescoping of normal rules, which require two weeks between the publication of a bill (its first reading, in parliamentary jargon) and the second reading debate.
But that kind of thing happens all the time. A simple motion to ignore the usual intervals would be agreed behind the scenes and rubber-stamped by MPs.
There is a clear majority in Parliament for Brexit, and it’s unlikely more than 100 of the 650 MPs would be prepared to vote against the Article 50 Bill.
Then it’s on to the House of Lords. There has been a certain amount of loose talk that Europe-supporting peers are lining up to block Brexit.
Few supported leaving the EU, but fewer still want to commit political suicide, and nothing would guarantee a determined drive to reform and reduce the House of Lords more effectively than a “Lords v the People” battle over Brexit.
So expect the Article 50 Bill to weather the storms ahead – but watch out for much more interesting action when the next big Brexit measure, the Great Repeal Bill, promised for the Queen’s Speech in May, hoves into sight.
When and if that passes through the two houses of parliament, the real negotiations with Europe can begin.
Brexit, it seems, has become an industry in itself.