Hard 'Brexit' more likely after big win for Theresa May

A triumphant Theresa May is on course to trigger Article 50 by her target of early March, after the Bill cleared the Commons with no changes - making a 'hard Brexit' ever more likely.

MPs again gave their overwhelming backing to the Prime Minister to start withdrawal talks on her terms - by 494 votes to 122 - on the final Commons reading of the landmark legislation.

Crucially, they rejected no fewer than nine attempted amendments, including one to guarantee the future rights of EU nationals, which means a 'clean' Bill will go to the upper chamber.

Delighted Brexit supporters believe that will make it harder for the unelected Lords - despite a strong Remain majority - to amend the Bill, because of a reluctance to take on elected MPs.

A Government source immediately warned peers: "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 Bill is now expected to be given Royal Assent on March 7 - allowing the Prime Minister to formally notify the EU that she is invoking Article 50 at an EU summit later that week.

Pro-Europe MPs loudly hummed 'Ode to Joy', the EU anthem, as the final historic votes were cast, until the Deputy Speaker told them to be quiet.

Just minutes earlier, Clive Lewis, Labour's Shadow Business Secretary, announced he was quitting the Shadow Cabinet in order to vote against Article 50, but Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, backed it.

Infamously, Ms Abbott missed last week's vote with a "migraine", but obeyed Jeremy Corbyn's three-line whip to vote for the Bill this time round.

A London MP with a huge pro-Remain constituency, she said: "I don't believe we've given a blank cheque. We're going to be holding them to account on the floor of the House."

The Labour revolt against Article 50 was larger than at last week's second reading of the Bill, with 52 MPs defying their leader - five more than a week earlier.

The rebels included Mr Lewis, who became the fourth Shadow Cabinet member to walk out as Brexit continued to tear Labour apart.

In a statement, he said: "When I became the MP for Norwich South, I promised my constituents I would be 'Norwich's voice in Westminster, not Westminster's voice in Norwich'.

"I therefore cannot, in all good conscience, vote for something I believe will ultimately harm the city I have the honour to represent, love and call home."

But a delighted David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, 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.

"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."

Earlier, MPs threw out an attempted amendment to immediately "protect the residence rights" of 3m EU citizens in the UK, facing huge uncertainty over their future.

Some Tory MPs had threatened a rebellion, urging Ms May to act without waiting for other EU countries to protect the rights of 1.2m British citizens in their countries.

But the revolt fizzled out after Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, insisted the decision would be in MPs' hands and that "nothing would change" without their consent.

Leading pro-Brexit MPs who claimed the NHS would receive an extra £350m-a-week after Brexit were condemned for voting against an amendment demanding an analysis of the impact on the NHS.

Current and former Cabinet ministers Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel all campaigned on the alleged spending bonanza for the health service - some alongside a battlebus promising voters the extra £350m.

And a Liberal Democrat amendment demanding a further referendum on the final Brexit deal before withdrawal can take place was easily defeated, by 340 votes to 33.

A furious Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said the Conservatives had been handed a 'blank cheque' for a hard Brexit - "an option that was never on the ballot paper last June".

He added: "This was the very moment that the country needed a bold and competent opposition. It also needed Conservative MPs who would put their country before their party. It didn't get either."

Mr Corbyn is not expected to start filling in the four vacancies in his Shadow Cabinet for several days - and no decision has been taken about disciplining 13 other frontbench rebels.

Ms May was forced to draw up the Bill after the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament must give its consent to triggering Article 50, but it proved far from the major hindrance she appeared to fear.

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