British PM puts Brexit top of new agenda

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the debate on the Queen's Speech in the House of Commons Chamber, in London December 19, 2019. — Picture by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the debate on the Queen's Speech in the House of Commons Chamber, in London December 19, 2019. — Picture by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via Reuters

LONDON, Dec 20 — Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday put Britain’s departure from the EU at the top of his to-do list, as Queen Elizabeth II read out his plans for government in a parliamentary ceremony following a sweeping election win.

The monarch formally opened parliament with plenty of traditional pomp and pageantry before ermine and red-robed members of the upper House of Lords, and MPs from the lower House of Commons.

But before the queen’s set-piece speech, Scotland’s first minister called for a new vote on independence, signalling a looming constitutional battle between London and Edinburgh.

Nicola Sturgeon said Brexit and election results north of the border made a clear “constitutional and democratic case” for a fresh look about whether Scotland should end its more than 300-year-old union with England and Wales.

Johnson’s top priority is a bill to ratify the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, which he negotiated in October but could not get through a deadlocked parliament.

Now with a comfortable majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, he hopes to push through the deal in time to fulfil his election campaign pledge to “Get Brexit Done” on the next EU deadline.

“My government’s priority is to deliver the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31st January,” the queen confirmed from her gilded throne.

She added: “Thereafter, my ministers will seek a future relationship with the EU based on a free-trade agreement that benefits the whole of the United Kingdom.”

In a sign of the government’s vow to keep to the Brexit timetable, a spokesman said the Department for Exiting the European Union “will be wound up once the UK leaves the EU on 31 January”.

Brexit cliff-edge?

Rebellions over Brexit left Johnson without the Commons support he needed to govern so he called a snap election — and won a landslide.

As a result, yesterday’s speech was scaled down, with the 93-year-old monarch eschewing her horse-drawn carriage for a car and her regalia for a matching coral green hat and coat.

The highlight of the proposed legislation was the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) to ratify the terms of Brexit, which will be put to a first vote among MPs today.

“After the dither, after the delay, after the deadlock, after the paralysis, the time has come for change and the time has come for action,” Johnson told MPs.

“A new golden age for this United Kingdom is now within reach.

“Tomorrow is the day when we finally peel back the plastic wrapping... and present our oven-ready deal... clearing the way for our overarching programme of national renewal.”

The bill covers Britain’s financial obligations to the EU, the rights of European expatriates and new arrangements for Northern Ireland.

It will also enshrine the dates of a transition period, which will keep EU-UK ties largely unchanged until December 31, 2020, to allow both sides to sign a new trade deal.

But the EU has warned the timetable is extremely tight to agree a new relationship after Britain leaves the bloc’s single market and customs union.

Scots away?

Johnson’s Tories may have won a majority across Britain in the December 12 poll but lost more than half their seats in Scotland on a campaign opposing a fresh independence vote.

First Minister Sturgeon said sweeping victories by her Scottish National Party in the three general elections since 2015 made the case for a new referendum “unarguable”.

“Scotland made it very clear last week it does not want a Tory government led by Boris Johnson, taking us out of the European Union,” Sturgeon told a news conference.

“That is the future we face if we do not have the opportunity to consider the alternative of independence.”

Scots voted against independence in 2014 but two years later a majority within Scotland said they wanted Britain to stay in the EU, unlike voters in England and Wales.

Pro-independence campaigners said that represents a “material change in circumstances” in Scotland’s relations with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon called on London to transfer powers allowing the devolved administration in Edinburgh to hold the vote.

But Johnson told MPs he intended to strengthen “the most successful union in history, and a sacred inheritance that this parliament will never allow anyone to rip up or rend asunder”. — AFP

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