Boris Johnson proclaimed “a new chapter in our national story” as MPs overwhelming approved a post-Brexit trade deal, drawing a line under Britain’s tumultuous 47-year membership of the EU.
The legislation to approve the treaty was due to be given royal assent by the Queen late on Wednesday night, just hours before Britain’s post-Brexit transition period ends at 11pm UK time on Thursday.
Mr Johnson claimed the deal, approved by 521 votes to 73, confounded critics who said it was impossible to have “free trade with the EU unless you conformed with the EU’s laws”.
He told the BBC that this had been compared to “having your cake and eating it”, adding: “That has turned out not to be true. I want you to see that this is a cakeist treaty.”
But Mr Johnson’s rhetoric will be tested in the coming hours when Britain leaves the EU’s customs union and single market, spawning what Labour leader Keir Starmer called “an avalanche of red tape”.
Mr Johnson’s definition of “free trade” will require traders to complete millions of customs declarations, costing businesses an estimated £7bn a year in new paperwork, according to HM Revenue & Customs.
But while traders prepared for new friction at the border as the new year dawns, there was cross-party agreement that Mr Johnson’s trade deal with the EU — signed on Christmas Eve — was better than no deal at all.
The trade and co-operation deal, which will ensure no tariffs or quotas on most goods, was portrayed by both Mr Johnson and Sir Keir as a platform to rebuild strained relations with the EU after the trauma of Brexit.
The UK prime minister described the deal as “not a rupture but a resolution”, insisting that Britain would become a reliable friend and partner to the rest of Europe from outside the EU.
Most Labour MPs voted for the 1,259 page agreement, which was signed by Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, and Charles Michel, European Council president, at a low-key ceremony in Brussels.
The treaty was then flown by RAF jet to London where it was signed by Mr Johnson in Downing Street, against a backdrop of Union flags, in a symbolic coda to more than four years of national psychodrama over Brexit.
Mr Michel said the deal was “a fair and balanced agreement that fully protects the fundamental interests of the European Union and creates stability and predictability for citizens and companies”.
Almost all Conservative MPs approved the agreement after the Eurosceptic European Research Group gave the treaty its backing on Tuesday; former cabinet ministers John Redwood and Owen Paterson abstained.
Sir Keir told his MPs to back the treaty on the basis that any trade deal was better than no trade deal, in spite of the “thin” nature of an agreement, which is focused on exports of goods, not services.
A total of 37 Labour MPs did not vote for the deal, many of them from the left of the party. However, a total of 162 Labour MPs trooped through division lobbies with Tory MPs to support it.
Sir Keir said the deal, for all its shortcomings, represented a basis on which the UK would rebuild its relations with the EU, but he said Mr Johnson had mis-sold the treaty to the British public.
The Labour leader also rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that the deal provided “certainty” for the UK services sector. He said there was a “gaping hole” in the treaty when it came to services, particularly financial services.
But Sir Keir, in a message which partly addressed divisions in his own party over Brexit, said the time had come to move on. “The divisions are over,” he said. “We now have an opportunity to forge a new future.”
Opposition from the SNP and the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists was a sign that Brexit has exacerbated tensions within the four parts of the UK.
Ian Blackford, parliamentary leader of the SNP, said Brexit had confronted Scots with the question: “Which union?” He said many Scots would prefer to live in the EU than in a “broken Brexit Britain”.
With elections to the Scottish parliament looming in May 2021, Mr Blackford said Brexit was “an act of economic vandalism, pure and simple”, which would bind business in “red, white and blue” tape.
Mr Johnson struck a conciliatory note, telling MPs: “What we sought was not a rupture but a resolution, a resolution of the old and vexed question of Britain’s political relations with Europe, which bedevilled our postwar history.
“Now, with this bill, we shall be a friendly neighbour — the best friend and ally the EU could have.” He said Britain would assert itself on the world stage in 2021 as “a liberal, outward-looking force for good”.
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