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U.K. Parliament backs Brexit deal in decisive step toward leaving the E.U.

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By Saphora Smith and Associated Press  with NBC News World News
Image: House of Commons
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the debate on the Queen's Speech in the House of Commons in London on Thursday.   -   Copyright  Jessica Taylor

LONDON — British lawmakers on Friday finally voted to back a plan to withdraw from the European Union.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's bill, backed by a huge parliamentary majority, will take the country out of the 28-member bloc on Jan. 31, and lays the groundwork for sweeping foreign and trade policy shifts.

The 358 to 234 vote marks a significant breakthrough for Johnson, who stormed to electoral victory last week on a pledge to "get Brexit done." The former mayor of London won the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, confirming his position as prime minister after he took over from Theresa May in July.

Johnson's majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons meant he was able to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill — legislation that will implement the divorce deal hammered out with the European Union. Britain joined the European Economic Community —a precursor to the European Union — in 1973.

His predecessor, May, failed on three occasions to win support for a deal she had agreed with the E.U., leading her to resign earlier this year. In October, Johnson was forced to break his own "do-or-die" deadline to lead Britain out of the bloc after lawmakers rejected his proposed timetable to get the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through parliament, meaning he had to request a Brexit extension from European leaders.

The bill — dubbed WAB by Brexit-watchers — commits Britain to leave the European Union on Jan. 31 and to conclude trade talks with the bloc by the end of 2020. The final stages of ratification will take place after Christmas.

However, this should not be confused with the end of Brexit as we are only nearing the end of stage one.

Much of the angst over Brexit since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 has centered on the divorce itself. With that endorsed by Parliament Friday, the U.K. must now pivot to negotiating what Brexit will actually look like for citizens and businesses alike.

First, the United Kingdom will enter a transition period that lasts until Dec. 2020 in which it will continue to act like a member of the European Union. In the meantime, top of the agenda is defining the nature of Britain's future relationship with the European Union post-divorce.

By most accounts, 11 months to strike a trade deal is ambitious but Johnson has insisted that he won't agree to any more delays. The pledge has set off alarm bells among businesses, who fear Britain could crash out of the European Union with no future trade arrangement in place at the beginning of 2021.

A "no deal" Brexit is widely considered a nightmare scenario — raising the possibility of shortages of food and medicine, civil unrest, and conflict in Northern Ireland.