UK Lawmakers to Vote on PM's Brexit

UK Lawmakers to Vote on PM's Brexit

LONDON (AP) -- British lawmakers were set to hold their first major vote Friday on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit deal, a bill that is all but certain to be approved by the country's new Conservative-dominated Parliament.

The vote to approve the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in principle will set Britain on course to leave the European Union as scheduled on Jan. 31.

It will be a moment of triumph for Johnson, who won a commanding parliamentary majority in last week's general election on a promise to end more than three years of political gridlock over Brexit.

Opening debate on the bill, Johnson said optimistically that after Jan, 31, "Brexit will be done, it will be over."

"The sorry story of the last 3 1/2 years will be at an end and we will be able to move forward together," he said.

Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. But p revious attempts by Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, to pass a Brexit deal through the U.K. Parliament foundered as lawmakers objected to sections of the agreement and demanded a bigger say in the process. Johnson's election victory finally gives him the power to get his way.

The bill commits Britain to leaving the EU on Jan. 31 and to concluding trade talks with the bloc by the end of 2020. Trade experts and EU officials say striking a free trade deal within 11 months will be a struggle, but Johnson insists he won't agree to any more delays, and the bill has been amended to bar ministers from agreeing to extend the transition period with the EU.

That has set off alarm bells among businesses, who fear that means the country will face a "no-deal" Brexit at the start of 2021. Economists say that would disrupt trade with the EU — Britain's biggest trading partner — and plunge the U.K. into recession.

Johnson said Friday he was confident of striking a "deep, special and democratically accountable partnership with those nations we are proud to call our closest friends."

For all Johnson's talk of "getting Brexit done" on Jan. 31, details of Britain's negotiating stance — and even who will lead the trade talks — remain unknown. Armed with his 80-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, Johnson has stripped out parts of the Brexit bill which gave lawmakers a role in negotiating a future trade deal with the EU and required ministers to provide regular updates to Parliament. The clauses were added earlier in the year in an attempt to win opposition lawmakers' support — backing that Johnson no longer needs.

A promise that workers' rights will not be eroded after Brexit has also been removed, though the government says it will enshrine employment rights in separate legislation.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said his 203 lawmakers would oppose the bill because of "the reckless direction in which the government and the prime minister are determined to take our country."

"There is a better and fairer way for this country to leave the European Union," he said.

Even without opposition votes, the bill is expected to complete its passage through Parliament in January, in time for Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc on Jan. 31.

The divorce deal also needs to be ratified by the European Parliament. European Parliament vice president Pedro Silva Pereira said officials expect that to happen by Jan. 29.

Very little will change immediately after Brexit. Britain will remain an EU member in all but name during the 11-month transition period that ends in December 2020.