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Government signals determination to keep to Article 50 timetable

The Government remains determined to trigger negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union by the end of March, Brexit Secretary David Davis has told the House of Commons as MPs began to debate a Bill which will give Theresa May permission to go ahead with talks.

MPs are set to debate the EU (Notification On Withdrawal) Bill over two full days, concluding with a vote on second reading on Wednesday evening.

The Government had resisted a vote, but was forced to seek Parliament's approval for its plans by a Supreme Court ruling last week.

But Mr Davis warned them at the outset they would not be able to vote to block Brexit, telling them the "point of no return" had already passed.

Following the vote for Brexit in last June's referendum, Mr Davis said the only question now before Parliament was: "Do we trust the people or not?"

With Labour having said they will not seek to block the triggering of Article 50 - marking the start of the two-year Brexit process - the Bill is expected to clear its first parliamentary hurdle relatively easily.

But Speaker John Bercow selected for debate a Scottish National Party amendment which would delay Article 50 on the grounds that the Government has failed to provide for consultation with devolved administrations, to publish a White Paper on its negotiating strategy or to answer a range of questions about the implications of withdrawal from the single market, and has not assured MPs of a meaningful vote at the end of the negotiation process.

Opening the Commons debate for the Government, Mr Davis said: "This is not a Bill about whether the UK should leave the EU or indeed how it should do it.

"It is simply about Parliament empowering the Government to implement a decision already made, a point of no return already passed.

"We asked the people of the UK if they wanted to leave the EU. They decided they did. So at the core of this Bill lies a very simple question. Do we trust the people or not?

"The democratic mandate is clear. The electorate voted for a government to give them a referendum, Parliament then voted to hold the referendum, the people voted in that referendum and we are now honouring the result of that referendum, as we said we would."

Mr Davis said the Bill of just two tightly-drawn clauses was a "straightforward" piece of legislation which implemented the referendum result while respecting the Supreme Court judgment.

He told MPs: "We will respect the will of the people and implement their will by March 31."

Mr Davis's Labour shadow Sir Keir Starmer said the Bill was "very difficult" for his party, which campaigned for Remain in the referendum, but saw two-thirds of its constituencies vote to leave.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been struggling to contain a revolt against his decision to impose a three-line whip ordering Labour MPs to vote for the Bill, with s hadow ministers Jo Stevens and Tulip Siddiq quitting in protest and other frontbenchers threatening to oppose it even if it costs their jobs.

Sir Keir told the Commons: "Although we are fiercely internationalist and fiercely pro-European, we are in the Labour Party above all democrats... As democrats, our party has to accept the result (of the referendum) and it follows that the Prime Minister shouldn't be blocked from starting Article 50 negotiations."

But he urged MPs to respect the anxiety of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, and said he hoped to see "a good deal less of the gloating from those who campaigned to leave than we've seen in the past".

"Above all, it is our duty to secure an outcome that is not just for the 52% or the 48%, but for the 100%," said Sir Keir.

Veteran Conservative Europhile Kenneth Clarke said he would vote against Article 50, telling MPs: "I believe it is in the national interest for the United Kingdom to be a member of the European Union, I believe we have benefited from that position for the last 45 years and I believe future generations will benefit if we actually succeed in remaining a member of the European Union."

Former SNP leader Alex Salmond told MPs the Government's decision to abandon membership of the European single market before negotiations had even begun had left the UK in a "position of weakness" in its desperate need for trade deals with other countries, leading to Mrs May's "abasement" before US President Donald Trump last week.

But Mr Davis retorted that Mr Salmond's analysis was "almost exactly the opposite" of the real situation.

Mr Clarke told the Commons: "It is a very very bad move, particularly for our children and grandchildren, that we are sitting here saying we are embarking on a new, unknown future which is simply baffling every friend of the British and of the United Kingdom throughout the world.

"That's why I will vote against."

The former cabinet minister dismissed suggestions he was duty-bound to vote in line with the referendum result, telling MPs "no sensible country has referendums" and the issue of EU membership was "most unsuitable" for a public vote.

Arguments on both sides of the referendum debate were "quite pathetic", particularly the Brexiteers' claim Britain could claw back £350 million a week from EU contributions.

Declaring he would vote according to his view of "the best national interest", Mr Clarke was clapped by many on the opposition benches as he concluded: "I personally shall be voting with my conscience content in this vote.

"When we see what unfolds hereafter as we leave the European Union, I hope the consciences of other Members of Parliament remain equally content."

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg told MPs he had heard "on very good authority" that Germany was ready to offer Mrs May an "emergency brake" on immigration in return for a form of Brexit which would minimise economic disruption.

The Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman claimed the Government had "spurned" the offer, as Mrs May preferred to "placate parts of the Conservative Party" rather than act in the UK's long-term interests.

Ex-foreign secretary Margaret Beckett warned that Article 50 negotiations would not be completed within the two-year deadline.

"I personally do not think for a second that they can be concluded within two years and I don't think anybody who has ever negotiated anything would," Dame Margaret told the Commons.

"It will be vital therefore to allow us to make preparation for possible transitional arrangements."

Veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash warned that MPs who tried to block Article 50 would be "voting against the people". He said the House of Lords would be "committing political suicide" if it attempted to prevent the Bill going through.

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