PM defends power to break international law in face of Tory revolt over Internal Market Bill

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Boris Johnson has defended his controversial plan to allow ministers to tear up the Brexit divorce deal by suggesting the European Union was being unreasonable and failing to negotiate in good faith.

In a Commons debate ahead of a vote late on Monday, the prime minister urged MPs to support the Internal Markets Bill, which would put the UK in breach of international law by breaking the terms of the treaty signed with Brussels, in order to “guarantee the economic and political integrity of the United Kingdom”, saying it was a “safety net” and an “insurance policy”.

The Internal Market Bill sets out the way that trade within the UK will work once outside the EU’s single market and customs union.

If implemented, the Bill will end the legal legitimacy of the Northern Ireland protocol - contained within the Withdrawal Agreement - in areas such as customs and state aid and financial assistance.

It will ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid (a subsidy or any other aid provided by a government that distorts competitions) rules - which will continue to apply in NI - will not apply in the rest of the UK.

Watch as MPs debate the controversial Internal Markets Bill that could override Brexit agreements, in the Commons

As he sought to quell a growing Tory revolt over the measures, Mr Johnson claimed that passing the legislation would strengthen the hand of negotiators trying to strike a trade deal with the EU.

In an effort to reassure Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson said the measures contained in the Bill to set aside parts of the Brexit deal were an “insurance policy” that he hoped would “never be invoked” if an agreement was reached with Brussels.

And he promised that if it was necessary for the powers to be used, MPs would be given a vote on the regulations.

Mr Johnson has faced backlash from all five of the former living Prime Ministers and a growing number of Tory MPs have said they will rebel against the government and vote down the Bill.

Former Chancellor Sajid Javid said moments before the opening of the second reading of the bill on Monday afternoon that he was “regretfully unable to support the UK Internal Market Bill unamended”.

Mr Johnson, taking the unusual step of opening the debate on the legislation in the Commons, accused the EU of going to “extreme and unreasonable lengths” over the Northern Ireland Protocol which he said could lead to “blockading food and agriculture transports within our own country”.

The measures, contained in the deal negotiated and championed by the prime minister last year, were designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland closely aligned with EU customs rules.

Mr Johnson told the Commons: “The intention of this Bill is clearly to stop any such use of the stick against this country and that’s what it does.

“It’s a protection, it’s a safety net, it’s an insurance policy, and it is a very sensible measure and in a spirit of reasonableness, we are conducting those checks in accordance with our obligations, we are creating the sanitary and vito-sanitary processes required under the Protocol and spending hundreds of millions of pounds on helping traders.”

He added: "Now that we've left the EU and the transition period is about to elapse, we need the armature of our law, once again to preserve the arrangements on which so many jobs and livelihoods depend.

"That is the fundamental purpose of this bill which should be welcomed by everyone who cares about the sovereignty and integrity of our United Kingdom."

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said there are questions around the Bill which go to the “heart of who we are as a country”.

Mr Miliband, standing in for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who is self-isolating after a family member showed symptoms of coronavirus, said there are two questions at the "heart of the bill and why why we’ll be opposing it tonight".

“First, how do we get an internal market after January 1 within the UK while upholding the devolution settlements which have been a vital part of our constitution now for two decades and are essential for our union?

“And secondly, is our country going to abide by the rule of law?

"A rules based international order for which we are famous around the world and have always stood up.

“These are not small questions, but go to the heart of who we are as a country and to the character of this government.”

Mr Miliband said it was not an argument about “Leave vs Remain” but “Right vs Wrong”.

He told the Commons: “Our global reputation for rule-making not rule-breaking is one of the reasons we are so respected around the world.

“And when you ask of people to think of Britain they think of the rule of law and let’s be clear after the Prime Minister’s speech this is not an argument about Remain vs Leave, it is an argument about Right vs Wrong.”

He accused Boris Johnson of “legislative hooliganism”, telling MPs: "I don’t understand this, he signed the deal, it’s his deal, it is the deal that he said would protect the people of Northern Ireland.

“And I have to say to him, this is not just legislative hooliganism on any issue, it is on the most sensitive issues of all."

Mr Miliband challenged the Prime Minister to highlight "the clause he says he's worried about, about GB to Northern Ireland exports."

The prime minister refused to answer after the Shadow Business Secretary gave way to him.

"He didn't read the protocol, he hasn't read the bill, he doesn't know his stuff," Mr Miliband said.

Referring to comments made last week by the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted that the legislation would “break international law" in a “very specific and limited way”, Mr Miliband said: "It now turns out that breaking the law in a specific and limited way is a reasonable defence for the government.

“The Johnson defence means something very specific – there is one rule for the British public and another rule for this Government.

He added: “For the first time in his life it is time to take responsibility, it is time to fess up.

“Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it.

“Because a competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with."

“And if such a government somehow missed the point but woke up later it would have done what any competent business would do after it realised it can’t live with the terms of a contract, it would negotiate a way out in good faith," Mr Miliband said.

“And that’s why this is all so unnecessary – because there is a mechanism designed for exactly this purpose in the agreement, the Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol.”

In the Commons, Labour MP Stephen Doughty challenged the PM about how a member of his own party described his Brexit policy as "Nixonian madman theory".

Mr Doughty said: "Is he not deeply worried that his policies and approach are being compared to those of the disgraced former US President Richard Nixon rather than someone like Winston Churchill?"

Mr Johnson replied that the bill is "essential for guaranteeing the economic and political integrity of the United Kingdom."

Stephen Doughty said the Prime Minister's approach is being compared to former US President Richard Nixon.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford warned Tory MPs not to follow the Prime Minister by breaking the law.

He told the Commons: “This is a test for the House this evening, do not wait for the committee stage. Legally, morally, ethically, the right thing to do is to vote down this Bill tonight and this House must be accountable.

“Do not follow the Prime Minister in acquiescing in breaking the law because if you vote for second reading tonight, that’s exactly what you’re all doing. So this is a test and I understand the challenge that Conservative members face – don’t support the Prime Minister by breaking the law this evening, it is as simple as that.”

Conservative Sir Bob Neill added that he wants to be able to support the Bill but cannot support it as it stands.

He said: “I hope that we will take the opportunity to change and improve these clauses and the way in which they might operate so that we do not fall into a means of damaging our reputation.

“That is why I can’t support the Bill tonight, I hope that we will see amendments to change what I believe are egregious and needless and potentially damaging elements of part five of the Bill.

“Unless there are those changes, I would have further difficulty supporting the Bill. But I do, having listened to what the Prime Minister has said, want to give the Government that chance in a constructive spirit – and I know that (Michael Gove) is listening carefully to that."

He added: "We need to find a constructive means of making sure that we meet our obligations to the Union, but not undermining our obligations to the rule of law either. I do not believe that is impossible with good will.”

Conservative Charles Walker told the Commons: “I’m no fan of the EU, I was in every single division lobby for Brexit, I think they’re a pain in the neck – but surely we have to exhaust all other options before we press the nuclear button.

“I’m not going to be voting for this Bill at second reading because if you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised when it bites you back. We are all Members of Parliament and we deserve to be taken seriously.”

Former Conservative minister Stephen Hammond said the country “does not break international law just because it doesn’t like the compromise it signed up to”, as he pressed Mr Gove about whether an amendment will be brought forward to enable MPs to vote before powers in the Bill can be used.

Conservative former minister Steve Brine told the House he and the Prime Minister “fell out” last year over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, as he sought assurances that Mr Johnson still wants to secure a free trade agreement with the EU.

Mr Johnson replied: “It’s by passing this Bill tonight and in subsequent days that we will make the possibility of that great free trade agreement more real and we will get it done sooner.”

He claimed the Bill will “expedite” such a trade deal with the EU and other countries.

Following emergency talks last week, the EU threatened to walk away from negotiations. Credit: PA

Last week, following emergency talks, the EU threatened to walk away from negotiations on a free trade deal if the government does not back down on the Internal Markets Bill by the "end of the month".

MPs have criticised the PM's proposals not only because they would break international law if implemented, but they could scupper all hopes of a free trade deal with the EU.

They also say it would reduce ability to sign trade deals with other countries as it would demonstrate that the UK cannot be trusted on international treaties.

The Prime Minister added the UK would also “simultaneously pursue every possible redress under international law as provided for in the protocol”, with an arbitration panel sought if necessary.

Mr Johnson told the Commons: “It’s not a question of if we meet our obligations but how we fulfil them.

"We must do so in a way that satisfies the fundamental purpose of the protocol – the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

“We will work with the EU on all of these issues, and even if we have to use these powers we will continue to engage with the joint committee so that any dispute is resolved as quickly and as amicably as possible, reconciling the integrity of the EU’s single market with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory.

“But what we cannot do now is tolerate a situation where our EU counterparts seriously believe that they have the power to break up our country. If that is what (MPs) want them to have on the other side, then I’m afraid they’re grievously mistaken.

“That illusion must be decently dispatched and that’s why these reserve powers are enshrined in this Bill.”

He added: “Last year we signed the Withdrawal Agreement in the belief, which I still hold, that the EU would be reasonable. Now, after everything that has recently happened, we must consider the alternative.

“We ask for reasonableness and common sense and balance and we still hope to achieve that through the Joint Committee process in which we will always persevere no matter what the provocation.”

Despite the angry rhetoric from both sides in the post-Brexit talks, informal discussions on a future trade deal with the EU were due to continue this week, with a meeting expected between chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier and their teams due on Tuesday.

MPs are to expected to vote on the Bill late on Monday.