UK MPs on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to approve Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal with Brussels, recasting an often difficult relationship with the EU in a matter of hours.
The House of Commons voted by 521 votes to 73 to approve the post-Brexit trade and co-operation agreement, a government majority of 448, as Mr Johnson won the backing of most opposition Labour MPs for his deal.
However a number of Labour MPs defied the party’s leadership by refusing to support Mr Johnson’s deal. Scottish National party, Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist party MPs voted against the agreement.
The UK prime minister described the deal as “not a rupture but a resolution”, insisting that Britain would become a reliable friend and partner to the rest of Europe from outside the EU.
Parliament was recalled for an emergency one-day session to approve the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement, concluded by Mr Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Christmas Eve, to enable it to come into operation on January 1.
Ms von der Leyen and European Council head Charles Michel signed the treaty on Wednesday morning in a low-key ceremony marked by social distancing.
The 1,259-page agreement travelled from Brussels to London on an RAF aircraft, accompanied by officials from both sides, and was due to be signed by Mr Johnson on Wednesday afternoon.
Mr Michel said the deal was “a fair and balanced agreement that fully protects the fundamental interests of the European Union and creates stability and predictability for citizens and companies”.
MPs overwhelmingly backed the new deal, which has a “zero tariff, zero quota” trade arrangement at its heart, after a debate opened by Mr Johnson and lasting just a few hours.
The House of Lords was also expected to approve the deal, which includes sections on security and energy co-operation, at breakneck speed. The legislation is due to reach the Queen, who is spending Christmas at Windsor Castle, for royal assent at around midnight on Wednesday.
The post-Brexit transition deal, which maintained Britain’s membership of the EU single market and customs union even after it had formally left the bloc in January, ends at 11pm UK time on New Year’s Eve. It marks the moment when the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe will change fundamentally.
In spite of the trade deal, British business will face an estimated £7bn of new red tape and checks when the transition ends on Thursday night. Individual workers and travellers will also face new hurdles.
Almost all Conservative MPs approved the agreement after the Eurosceptic European Research Group gave the treaty its backing on Tuesday; former cabinet ministers John Redwood and Owen Paterson abstained.
Labour leader Keir Starmer instructed his MPs to back the treaty on the basis that any trade deal was better than no trade deal, in spite of the “thin” nature of an agreement, which is focused mainly on exports of goods, not services.
A total of 37 Labour MPs did not vote for the deal — 36 of them abstentions — many of them from the left of the party. However a total of 162 Labour MPs trooped through division lobbies with Tory MPs to support it.
Sir Keir said the deal, for all its shortcomings, represented a basis on which the UK would rebuild its relations with the EU, but he said Mr Johnson had mis-sold the treaty to the British public.
Mr Johnson had previously claimed the treaty would remove “non-tariff barriers” to trade, but Sir Keir said there would be “an avalanche of checks and red tape for business” starting on January 1.
The Labour leader also rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that the deal provided “certainty” for the UK services sector. He said there was a “gaping hole” in the treaty when it came to services, particularly financial services.
But Sir Keir, in a message which partly addressed divisions in his own party over Brexit, said the time had come to move on. “The divisions are over,” he said. “We now have an opportunity to forge a new future.”
Theresa May, former prime minister, noted that Sir Keir and the Labour party could have secured better trading relations with the EU had it last year backed her own proposed trade deal, which would have kept Britain more closely tied to Brussels.
The opposition from the SNP and the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists was a sign that Brexit has exacerbated tensions within the four parts of the UK.
Ian Blackford, parliamentary leader of the SNP, said Brexit had confronted Scots with the question: “Which union?” He said many Scots would prefer to live in the EU than in a “broken Brexit Britain”.
With elections to the Scottish parliament looming in May 2021, Mr Blackford said Brexit was “an act of economic vandalism, pure and simple”, which would bind business in “red, white and blue” tape.
Mr Johnson struck a conciliatory note, telling MPs: “What we sought was not a rupture but a resolution, a resolution of the old and vexed question of Britain’s political relations with Europe, which bedevilled our postwar history.
“Now, with this bill, we shall be a friendly neighbour — the best friend and ally the EU could have.” He said Britain would assert itself on the world stage in 2021 as “a liberal, outward-looking force for good”.