London: Boris Johnson's Brexit deal cleared its first vote in parliament, putting the UK's trade agreement with the European Union on course to become law within hours.
Members of the House of Commons voted 521 to 73 to approve the accord after they were recalled from their Christmas break for an emergency session on Wednesday.
With the main opposition Labour Party backing the bill, the legislation is almost certain to become law in a single day, 24 hours before the U.K. leaves the EU's single market and customs union. Failure to endorse the deal would have risked the return of costly tariffs on trade and severe disruption to supply chains.
"The central purpose of this bill is to accomplish something the British people always knew in their hearts was possible," Johnson said as he opened the debate on the legislation to write the deal into U.K. law. Britain can "trade and cooperate" with other European countries, while retaining "sovereign control of our laws and destiny," he said.
The agreement removes the UK from the constraints of EU competition and state aid laws, meaning it can choose to invest and boost industries wherever it likes, Johnson said. It also gives the U.K. control over its fishing waters, immigration policy and law-making, and provides "certainty" to airlines and haulers who have been hit by the pandemic, he said.
"We are going to open a new chapter in our national story," Johnson said. "The responsibility now rests with all of us to make the best use of the powers we've regained."
The prime minister won important political support from a prominent group of hard-line Brexit supporters in his Conservative Party, who said they would back the deal. The Scottish National Party attacked the agreement, saying it will harm Scotland's fishing industry, and told Johnson it will bolster the case for independence.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said his party would vote for the agreement to avoid the prospect of crashing out without a trade accord, but he criticized it as "imperfect" and "thin."
Lack of choice
"We have only one day before the end of the transition period, and it's the only deal that we have," Starmer said. "Ultimately voting to implement this treaty is the only way to ensure we avoid no-deal."
Former prime minister Theresa May, who resigned in July 2019 after failing to secure parliamentary backing for her Brexit plans, also welcomed the deal. However, she said she is disappointed at the lack of provision for the services sector, which makes up 80 per cent of Britain's economy, and the City of London financial district.
"We have a deal in trade which benefits the EU, but not one in services that would have benefited the U.K.," May said. She highlighted the extra bureaucracy professionals will face when trying to sell their services in the bloc.
The House of Lords is expected to vote on the legislation later in the evening, ensuring it is pushed through in time for the end of the Brexit transition period at 11 pm on Thursday.