Boris Johnson has returned to the House of Commons after his election victory with a Brexit bill that looks markedly different to the one he promised the electorate when campaigning.
As MPs prepare to vote on the second reading of his Brexit terms, the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill or WAB has abandoned or weakened its earlier commitments to workers’ rights, environmental protections and the ability to extend the negotiation period.
Yet after Johnson secured an 80-seat majority in the election, the vote in the afternoon is expected to pass without a hitch for the government and lay the ground for a January exit from the EU.
Johnson called this a “new dawn” for Britain – but he has drawn fire from opposition MPs.
He said: “Today we will deliver on the promise we made to the people and get the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas.
“Now MPs will start the process of passing the bill. Then, at the beginning of the new decade, at the beginning of a new dawn for our country, our parliamentarians will return to Westminster to immediately finish the job, take us out of the EU on January 31 and move this country forward.
“After years of delay and rancour in parliament, we will deliver certainty and hard-working businesses and people across this country will have a firm foundation on which to plan for the future.”
But critics on the opposition benches said Johnson had “binned” his pre-election compromises on protections for workers and child refugees now that he had been “unbridled” by his crushing win at the polls.
The WAB now appears to have rowed back on an original commitment to strike a deal with the EU so child refugees in Europe can continue to be reunited with their families in the UK, even after free movement ends.
Clause 37 of the bill replaces the pledge with a watered-down vow for ministers to “make a statement” on the progress of the talks once the divorce with Brussels is complete.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, told the Guardian: “The Tories have torn up the protections for workers’ rights and child refugees – and watered-down parliament’s role in the next phase of the Brexit negotiations.
“It was a bad bill before the election, and it is even worse now.”
Acting Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ed Davey, added: “Barely days away from the election and this Withdrawal Agreement reveals exactly what an unbridled Boris Johnson will do with the country.
“Every compromise made before the election, from workers’ rights to protections for unaccompanied refugee children, have been binned just as we warned they would.”
Downing Street said forthcoming legislation would show the government’s commitment to upholding rights and protections after exit day.
“Our commitment to continue the highest standards on workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections will be honoured by provisions in separate legislation, including the Employment bill announced in the Queen’s Speech,” said Number 10.
A host of other changes were made to the Brexit bill since it was last before the Commons in October.
Johnson has inserted a clause that will legally prevent any extension of the 11-month transition period given for negotiating a trade deal – despite EU comment that this is a “very short” time to strike such a complex deal.
European Parliament vice president Pedro Silva Pereira told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have a very short timeframe available.
“Eleven months to negotiate such a complex trade agreement is unprecedented. It is a different situation. We come from a level of economic integration which has no comparison with other trade agreements that we’ve done before.”
He added: “The key issue will be what kind of regulatory disalignment we will have. The political declaration that we’ve agreed with the UK envisaged a very ambitious trading relationship with zero tariffs, zero quotas.
“But this can only be achieved if we ensure some regulatory alignment.”
The legal text of the WAB will also boost give judges the ability to overrule judgments made by the European Court of Justice.
If passed by MPs, the Brexit bill will return for its final stages in both the Commons and the House of Lords in the New Year before achieving Royal Assent.
The timetable paves the way for the UK to leave the EU by the January 31 deadline and for trade talks to start.