MPs have backed the government's bill to allow Theresa May to trigger Article 50 and start the Brexit process, but an amendment that would have given EU citizens in the UK permanent residency after Britain leaves the EU was defeated.
The Brexit bill passed its final hurdle in the House of Commons on Wednesday night by 494 votes to 122. No amendments were passed, meaning the legislation now goes to the House of Lords unchanged.
While the result of the final vote was all but a foregone conclusion and attention was focusing on the implications for Labour – soon justified by the resignation of frontbencher Clive Lewis, who defied Jeremy Corbyn's three-line whip to vote against the bill – the issue of EU nationals is likely to remain a bone of contention for some time.
Early signs of a Tory rebellion on the issue had fizzled away by Wednesday, and the amendment was defeated by 332 votes to 290. In the end, only three Tory MPs backed the amendment – Ken Clarke, Tania Mathias, and Andrew Tyrie.
Ben Bradshaw, the strongly pro-Remain Labour MP for Exeter, described the amendment's failure to pass as "shameful".
Earlier in the day, former culture minister Ed Vaizey let slip that home secretary Amber Rudd had sent him assurances about the rights of EU citizens, prompting demands from Labour and SNP MPs for those to be produced for the whole house. It is not known how widely the letter was distributed, but it was later published on the ConservativeHome website.
It says that Britain's policy on the issue will be settled by a separate immigration bill, suggesting that current EU immigration rules will be copied across to British law and new legislation could then be introduced further down the line.
In the letter, Rudd writes:
There is absolutely no question of treating EU citizens with anything other than the utmost respect, recognising the contribution they make not just to our economy, but also working in crucial public services like the NHS. Without them we would be poorer and our public services weaker. That’s why we will be making securing their status, as well as that of British nationals in the EU, a priority as soon as we trigger Article 50 and the negotiations begin.
The letter, however, did little to placate many MPs, who felt it contained no new assurances on the issue.
A No. 10 spokesperson told The Guardian: “This was a ‘dear colleague’ letter just repeating the messages the prime minister has made about protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK and reciprocal arrangements. We are aware this is an area of concern and the PM has been clear she wants to make it one of the first priorities.”
The Brexit bill's smooth progress through parliament was met with joy from pro-Leave MPs but despondency from the pro-Remain side of the house. After 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."
He went on: "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 decision on EU membership has been made by the people we serve. It is now time for everyone, whichever way they voted in the referendum, to unite to make a success of the important task at hand for our country."
However, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron described it as "a very dark day" while Green party leader Caroline Lucas described its passing as "unbelievable" on social media.
Labour, meanwhile, has been hit by a small revolt over Corbyn's instruction to back the bill, with 52 MPs – almost a quarter of the parliamentary party – ignoring his three-line whip. Clive Lewis was the most high-profile rebel on Wednesday, and his departure follows the earlier resignations from the front bench of other Labour shadow cabinet members, including Rachael Maskell and Jo Stevens.
Many of the party's MPs found themselves trapped between the instructions of their leader and their pro-Remain constituents. Attention was focused on key Corbyn ally Diane Abbott, who abstained from last week’s votes due to an apparent illness. She voted for the bill on Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, 19 Labour MPs backed an amendment tabled by Farron, which called for a second public referendum before Brexit could finally happen. The amendment was defeated by over 300 votes, but Corbyn will be left to decide if the five frontbenchers who backed it will need to be disciplined.
Another amendment, which demanded an analysis of the impact of Brexit on the NHS, was also voted down. It prompted a furious reaction from Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary who tabled it.
“For [Brexiteers] to promise £350 million more a week for the NHS, and then turn round and oppose an amendment that would have set out how they will deliver their pledge is utterly shameless and disgraceful,” he said.
“Voters can now see very well that pro-Leave Tories made that pledge cynically, without ever thinking about how it might be achieved."
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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