PM calls EU tactics 'extreme' while defending breach of international law

Boris Johnson faces mounting rebellion from Tories including former chancellor Sajid Javid

Boris Johnson accused the EU of preparing to go to “extreme and unreasonable lengths” in Brexit talks as he defended breaching international law amid a mounting rebellion from Tory backbenchers.

The former chancellor, Sajid Javid, became the most senior of the prime minister’s past cabinet colleagues to say they could not support the UK internal market bill prior to a Commons vote on Monday night.

Javid joined two former Conservative attorney generals, Jeremy Wright and Sir Geoffrey Cox. David Cameron, one of Johnson’s predecessors, had earlier expressed “misgivings” about the creation of powers to row back on elements of the withdrawal agreement involving Northern Ireland. All five living former prime ministers have now expressed concern about the bill.

More than 20 Tory MPs are expected to withhold support for the bill but most will abstain unless the government makes concessions on giving parliament a vote on the new powers before the vote.

The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality,  which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations  have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.

This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.

The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster "power grab", and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.

It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.

The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent".

The bill passed its first hurdle in parliament by 77 votes, despite a rebellion by some Tory MPs. On 9 November two clauses were removed after defeat for the government in the House of Lords. The government stated it intended to reintroduce them.

Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott

Whips told some MPs the threat of withdrawing the Conservative whip had not been ruled out if they rebelled.

In a nod to some angry MPs, Johnson said he would never invoke the controversial powers in the internal market bill if a Brexit trade deal was reached with the EU. He said the UK would “simultaneously pursue every possible redress under international law, as provided for in the [Northern Ireland] protocol” – a measure suggested by Cox.

Opening the debate in the Commons, the prime minister claimed the EU was willing to “use the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that goes well beyond common sense, simply to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free trade agreement”.

Johnson said the measures in the bill – which would hand unilateral powers to ministers in key areas yet to be agreed with the EU, breaching the terms of the treaty agreed in January – were “a protection, it’s a safety net, it’s in an insurance policy, and it is a very sensible measure”.

He said threats from the EU, which the bloc has denied, had made the legislation necessary, claiming the bloc could prevent food exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

That claim drew incredulity from the shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, who responded for Labour. He said the bill did “precisely nothing” to address that issue, offering mockingly to give way to Johnson in the Commons if he had found anything in the bill that dealt with the “supposed threat”.

“He didn’t read the protocol, he hasn’t read the bill,” Miliband said. “What incompetence, what failure of governance, and how dare he try and blame everyone else? This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure.”

Intervening in Johnson’s speech, Wright raised the ministerial code which he said bounds ministers to respect international law. Earlier the former attorney general had said he along with many others, were “profoundly disturbed by what’s going on”.

Two former barristers – Cox and Rehman Chishti, who quit as the special envoy on religious freedom – also told the government they would not back the bill, along with former solicitor Gary Streeter.

“There is concern among some lawyers in parliament about what effect this would have on their practice after they leave parliament – the bar has made its view very clear,” one MP said.

The debate also saw the first of the 2019-intake of Tory MPs decline to back the bill. Imran Ahmad Khan, who represents Wakefield, said: “Moral authority is hard-earned and easily lost.”

Javid, who quit the cabinet earlier this year, said it was not clear why international law had to be broken and that he was “regretfully unable to support the UK internal market bill” unamended. He added the UK should wait until it was clear the EU intended to act in bad faith and until then use safeguards already enshrined in the withdrawal agreement.

Others planning to abstain include Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence select committee, who said: “Everything is getting very high-octane, and the collateral damage to Britain is reaching the US Congress, where people are bewildered we are going down this avenue.

“Many of us are conflicted because I came into politics to further Britain’s place on the international stage, and now we are at a time where there is an absence of political leadership, and we can’t hold our heads up high if we are being seen to challenge international law.”

Most MPs with concerns about the bill will be expected to abstain rather than vote against, saving their ire for votes next week where amendments will be tabled. Asked whether Tory MPs who rebelled on Monday night could lose the whip, Johnson’s spokesman stressed it was “critical” that Conservatives backed the bill.

An amendment next week has been put forward by the chair of the justice select committee, Bob Neill – another former barrister. It would require parliamentary approval before any future decision could be made by the government to disapply the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.

Those backing the Neill amendment include the former cabinet minister Damian Green, the QC and former justice minister Oliver Heald, the Northern Ireland select committee chair, Simon Hoare, and Damian Collins, former chair of the culture select committee, who are all expected to withhold support for the bill.

(January 31, 1961)  Brefusal

The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoes Britain’s entry to EEC, accusing the UK of a “deep-seated hostility” towards the European project.

(January 31, 1973)  Brentry

With Sir Edward Heath having signed the accession treaty the previous year, the UK enters the EEC in an official ceremony complete with a torch-lit rally, dickie-bowed officials and a procession of political leaders, including former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

(January 31, 1975)  Referendum

The UK decides to stay in the common market after 67% voted "yes". Margaret Thatcher, later to be leader of the Conservative party, campaigned to remain.

(January 31, 1984)  'Give us our money back'

Margaret Thatcher negotiated what became known as the UK rebate with other EU members after the "iron lady" marched into the former French royal palace at Fontainebleau to demand “our own money back” claiming for every £2 contributed we get only £1 back” despite being one of the “three poorer” members of the community.

It was a move that sowed the seeds of Tory Euroscepticism that was to later cause the Brexit schism in the party. 

(January 31, 1988)  The Bruges speech

Thatcher served notice on the EU community in a defining moment in EU politics in which she questioned the expansionist plans of Jacques Delors, who had remarked that 80% of all decisions on economic and social policy would be made by the European Community within 10 years with a European government in “embryo”. That was a bridge too far for Thatcher.

(January 31, 1989)  The cold war ends

Collapse of Berlin wall and fall of communism in eastern Europe, which would later lead to expansion of EU.

(January 31, 1990) 'No, no, no'

Divisions between the UK and the EU deepened with Thatcher telling the Commons in an infamous speech it was ‘no, no, no’ to what she saw as Delors’ continued power grab. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ratchets up its opposition to Europe with a two-fingered “Up yours Delors” front page.

(January 31, 1992)  Black Wednesday

A collapse in the pound forced prime minister John Major and the then chancellor Norman Lamont to pull the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

(January 31, 1993)  The single market

On 1 January, customs checks and duties were removed across the bloc. Thatcher hailed the vision of “a single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people".

(January 31, 1993) Maastricht treaty

Tory rebels vote against the treaty that paved the way for the creation of the European Union. John Major won the vote the following day in a pyrrhic victory. 

(January 31, 1997)  Repairing the relationship

Tony Blair patches up the relationship. Signs up to social charter and workers' rights.

(January 31, 1999)  Ukip

Nigel Farage elected an MEP and immediately goes on the offensive in Brussels. “Our interests are best served by not being a member of this club,” he said in his maiden speech. “The level playing field is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit an iceberg.”

(January 31, 2003) The euro

Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the UK will not join the euro.

(January 31, 2004) 

EU enlarges to to include eight countries of the former eastern bloc including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

(January 31, 2007) 

EU expands again, allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the club.

(January 31, 2015) Migrant crisis

Anti-immigration hysteria seems to take hold with references to “cockroches” by Katie Hopkins in the Sun and tabloid headlines such as “How many more can we take?” and “Calais crisis: send in the dogs”.

(February 1, 2016) 

David Cameron returns from Brussels with an EU reform package - but it isn't enough to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party

(June 23, 2016)  Brexit referendum

The UK votes to leave the European Union, triggering David Cameron's resignation and paving the way for Theresa May to become prime minister

(January 31, 2020)  Britain leaves the EU

After years of parliamentary impasse during Theresa May's attempt to get a deal agreed, the UK leaves the EU.

Others expressing serious concerns were the chair of the foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat, former transport minister George Freeman and the veteran Tory Sir Roger Gale who said: “An Englishman’s word used to be his bond. Under Johnson that is not so.”

One senior backbencher accused the whips of scare tactics. “Unfortunately this is being framed as being pro or against Brexit again, even whether you are patriotic,” the MP said. “Cox’s intervention should prevent it descending into those shallow waters.

“They are now leaning heavily on loyalty to the prime minister – and there are many people who do want to go back into government and they will be tested today, there’s no question.”

There is consternation even among loyal long-serving Conservatives who are planning to back the government. One former cabinet minister said they would only back the bill “through gritted teeth”.

On Monday, Cameron said: “Passing an act of parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate. It should be an absolute final resort. So, I do have misgivings about what’s being proposed.”

The former Labour prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and the former Conservative prime minister John Major all said the bill risked the UK’s international obligation. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, has also made clear in parliament she is concerned about the implications of the bill.


Jessica Elgot Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

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