Brexit Secretary David Davis has warned MPs the “eyes of the nation” are watching as he argued against an attempt to block legislation paving the way for Theresa May to trigger official EU withdrawal talks.
The Tory frontbencher came under fire from all sides of the chamber yesterday as he set out the UK Government’s Article 50 bill.
Among his harshest critics was former chancellor Ken Clarke, who suggested ministers were following the “rabbit down the hole” and expecting to emerge in a “wonderland” where trade deals abound.
The SNP and Liberal Democrats are also refusing to back the legislation, required after the Supreme Court ruling that Westminster’s approval is needed before the formal, two-year process can begin.
But Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said as democrats his party had to accept the referendum result.
He added: “It follows that the prime minister should not be blocked from starting the Article 50 process.”
That did not mean Mrs May could do what she wanted without restraint from the Commons, he added.
Introducing the bill, Mr Davis said: “We voted to give the people the chance to determine our future at a referendum. Now we must honour our side of the agreement – to vote to deliver on the result.
“So really we are considering that very simple question – do we trust the people or not?
“The eyes of the nation are on this chamber as we consider this bill.”
SNP Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins warned against an “act of constitutional and economic sabotage”.
He pressed the government to publish its white paper detailing the strategy for Brexit as he outlined his party’s reasoned amendment that – if successful – would kill off the bill at the first hurdle.
Brandishing a copy of the Scottish Government’s independence white paper, he said the House was at a “cross roads” and could choose a path of “continuing progress” or one of isolationism, leaving the UK “scrabbling around for friends”.
Former first minister Alex Salmond also criticised the Conservative administration and its decision to abandon membership of the European single market before negotiations had even started.
That had left the UK in a “position of weakness” and in desperate need of trade deals with other countries, he said, prompting Mrs May’s “abasement” before US President Donald Trump in Washington.
The first of the 99 backbenchers listed to speak in the debate, which was attended by Mrs May, was Mr Clarke, a well-known Europhile.
Aiming squarely at ministers, he said: “We are combining withdrawal from the single market and the customs union with this great new globalised future, which offers tremendous opportunities for us.
“Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that previously we had never been able to achieve as part of the EU.
“Nice men like President Trump and President Erdogan are just impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access.
“No doubt there is somewhere a Hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse.”
The SNP’s amendment calls for the European Union (Notification Of Withdrawal) Bill not to be given a second reading.
It condemns the absence of a white paper – promised by the prime minister – and lack of details for “effective consultation” with the devolved administrations, as well as unanswered questions about the implications of leaving the single market.
MPs are due to vote on the amendment today.
If it fails, as is expected, there will then be a vote on the bill itself.
Mrs May has said she wants to trigger Article 50 by the end of March.