Brexit bill to override EU divorce deal passes first hurdle but MPs rebel

The Victoria Tower stands in Westminster, in London, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
The Victoria Tower stands in Westminster, in London, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Copyright AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
By Alasdair SandfordAlice Tidey
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MPs backed Boris Johnson's controversial Internal Market Bill which breaches international law by a majority of 77 but a potential rebellion looms.


British MPs passed the government's controversial bill designed to override parts of the Brexit divorce deal at its first hurdle in the House of Commons by a majority of 77 on Monday evening.

The Internal Markets Bill, which Boris Johnson's nationalist administration has admitted would breach international law by allowing the UK to override Brexit deal provisions on Northern Ireland, secured 340 votes in favour with 263 against. The prime minister claims "extreme" action by the EU is threatening the UK's integrity.

The result was boosted by the support of seven MPs from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However, several MPs from the ruling Conservative Party have said they cannot support the measure and 30 are listed as having no vote recorded. Whether opposition grows into a larger rebellion at a later stage remains to be seen.

The bill also has to go before the upper chamber, the House of Lords, where a revolt could significantly delay the legislation.

Five former prime ministers have castigated Johnson's plan to counter the internationally-binding EU divorce treaty he negotiated and signed up to less than a year ago. When he did, it broke a long deadlock in the British parliament, paving the way for the UK's departure from the EU last January.

The government's stance has blown open the long-standing conundrum over border arrangements on the island of Ireland. It also threatens to torpedo the flailing trade negotiations with the EU, which has given the UK until the end of September to withdraw the legislation.

'Extraordinary threat' from EU

During Monday's debate, Boris Johnson claimed that the European Union has issued an "extraordinary threat" that would result in the "blockading (of) food and agricultural transport within our own country" as he defended a controversial bill that would breach international law.

The UK prime minister said the bloc has threatened to "interpret the (Northern Ireland) Protocol in absurd ways" in order to impose "tariffs borders across our own country and to divide our own land".

"Last year we signed the Withdrawal Agreement in the belief, which I still hold, that the EU would be reasonable," Johnson said, adding however that "we must consider the alternative".

He added that he has "absolutely no desire to use these measures" but that "they are an insurance policy" and that as such "they will never be invoked" if the UK and the EU reach an agreement.

The EU wants to know further details of the UK's plans over food standards, which the government has yet to clarify. But it has flatly denied British claims that the bloc is refusing to list Britain as a third country for food exports, thus making it illegal for Northern Ireland to import from the rest of the UK.

'A pivotal moment'

Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary from the main opposition Labour Party, retorted that passing the bill would in itself break international law and lambasted Johnson for "trashing the reputation of our country".

He said the prime minister is "cavalier with international law, he is cavalier on our traditions".

"This is a pivotal moment in determining the future of our country, who we are and how we operate," he added.

He also took aim at Johnson for being the chief engineer of the Withdrawal Agreement he's now criticising.

"What the Prime Minister is coming to this House to tell us today is that his flagship achievement, the deal that he told us was a triumph, the deal that he said as I said was 'oven-ready', the deal on which he fought and won the general election is now 'contradictory' and 'ambiguous'. What incompetence, what failure of governance," he said.

"How dare he try to blame everyone else? Can I say to the Prime Minister, this time, he can't blame the Right Honourable Member for Maidenhead [former Prime Minister Theresa May], he can't blame [former Prime Minister] John Major, he can't blame the judges, he can't blame the civil servants, he can't sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There's only one person responsible for it and that's him.

"This is his deal, it's his mess, it's his failure. For the first time in his life, it's time to take responsibility. It's 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," he went on.


He also argued that "this bill does precisely nothing to address the issue of the transport of food form Great Britain to Northern Ireland".

"If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there's another part of this bill that I haven't notice that will deal with this supposed threat of the blockade, I'll give way to him," he said.

Ian Blackford, from the Scottish National Party (SNP), described the bill as "nothing more than a Brexit bargaining chip".

"It does two fundamentally dangerous and undemocratic things: it breaks international law and it breaks devolution," he went on.

Johnson vs five predecessors

The debate in parliament came after David Cameron became the fifth former British prime minister to criticise the bill, which gives ministers powers to "disapply" parts of the rules agreed in October 2019 for goods that cross in and out of Northern Ireland.


The rules are set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the binding Withdrawal Agreement that set the divorce terms between the UK and the EU, and has the force of an international treaty.

"Passing an Act of Parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate,'' said Cameron, who occupied No 10 Downing Street from 2010-2016 and resigned after the EU referendum.

However, the ex-leader said it was important to note that the provisions in the bill might never be implemented. "The bigger picture here is we are in a vital negotiation with the European Union to get a deal," he added.

Cameron's intervention followed those of former prime ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major, who implored lawmakers to reject Boris Johnson's proposed new legislation. Theresa May and Gordon Brown have also attacked the plan as damaging to the UK.

The divorce deal gives the European Union a remit in Northern Ireland, which would continue to follow the bloc's single market rules and apply its customs code in order to keep an open border with EU member the Republic of Ireland.


The British government argues that its bill -- which has sparked an outcry within the EU -- is an "insurance policy" for a scenario where no trade deal is agreed with the bloc.

Talks are ongoing but deadlocked over competition and fishing rights. Boris Johnson has set a deadline of mid-October for agreement to be reached.

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