Theresa May wins MPs' backing to begin Brexit

Updated: 

MPs have given Theresa May their overwhelming backing to formally begin Brexit in a historic House of Commons vote.

The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal Bill) was approved after around 40 hours of debate during which the Government saw off a series of attempts to change it to safeguard against a "hard Brexit".

The legislation will allow the Prime Minister to begin exit negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties, which she has promised by April, once it passes through the House of Lords.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May Attends Weekly Question Time

Jeremy Corbyn's decision to order his MPs to back the simple two clause Bill ensured a smooth passage in its final Commons stage, where it was passed by 494 votes to 122 - a majority of 372.

But the Labour leader's authority was called into question after senior frontbencher and ally Clive Lewis quit the shadow cabinet to defy a three-line whip and vote against the Bill.

As MPs passed through the division lobbies for what many saw as a momentous vote, anti-Brexit Scottish National Party MPs whistled and sang the official EU anthem Ode To Joy, before being told off by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

Another MP was heard to shout "shame" while some Tory MPs applauded the result of the vote, which the Government had tried to avoid before the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament must have a say.

Following the vote, Brexit Secretary David Davis said: "We've seen a historic vote tonight - a big majority for getting on with negotiating our exit from the EU and a strong, new partnership with its member states.

"It has been a serious debate, a healthy debate, with contributions from MPs representing all parts of the UK, and I respect the strong views on all sides."

The Liberal Democrats have vowed to continue trying to amend the legislation after it comes to the Lords on February 20, to ensure a second referendum on the final exit deal achieved by Mrs May.

And pro-Europe Tory and Labour peers may also try and make changes to the Bill.

But a government source warned the Lords it faces abolition if peers attempt to frustrate the progress of Brexit.

"The Lords will face an overwhelming public call to be abolished if they now try and frustrate this Bill - they must get on and deliver the will of the British people," the source said.

The legislation passed through the Commons without being amended after the Government saw off the threat of a significant Tory rebellion over the rights of EU citizens already in the UK.

Just three Tory backbenchers - Ken Clarke, Tania Mathias and Andrew Tyrie - rebelled to back a bid to make ministers unilaterally guarantee EU nationals' rights.

Other pro-Remain Tories appear to have backed down after Home Secretary Amber Rudd sent them a letter offering them assurances over the issue.

The Government has said it will treat EU nationals' status as a priority in Brexit negotiations and seek to strike a reciprocal agreement to also protect the rights of British expats in Europe as soon as possible.

Brexit-backers such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were ridiculed after voting against an amendment calling for their promise that quitting the EU would allow £350 million extra to be spent on the NHS every week be kept.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna said Tory MPs who campaigned to leave should "hang their heads in shame".

A total of 52 Labour MPs, including 11 frontbenchers and three whips, rebelled against Mr Corbyn's orders and voted against triggering Article 50.

Former chancellor Ken Clarke was again the only Conservative to vote against the Bill.

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit supporter, said: "I never thought I'd see the day where the House of Commons overwhelmingly voted for Britain to leave the European Union."

Mrs May's immediate attention will now turn to a meeting on Thursday at Downing Street with Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni in which the pair are sure to discuss Brexit.