Former Tory prime minister David Cameron has joined other ex-PMs in expressing “misgivings” about prime minister Boris Johnson’s proposal to override the Brexit ‘divorce’ deal. Johnson is attempting to push through the internal market bill. This bill aims to give ministers power to pass trade regulations for UK nations, even if they contradict the withdrawal agreement the UK has reached with the EU.
The government has said the bill would breach international law. But ministers insist it’s a “safety net” if they fail to agree a trade deal with Brussels before the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.
Cameron did not go quite as far in his criticism as John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Theresa May, all of whom have denounced the move. But his statement piles further pressure on Johnson, amid a growing Tory revolt over controversial new proposed legislation.
Breaching international law
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.
But, I would just make this point. So far what’s happened is the Government has proposed a law that it might pass, or might not pass, or might use, or might not use depending on whether … certain circumstances do, or do not appear.
And, of course, the bigger picture here is that we are in a vital negotiation with the European Union to get a deal and I think we have to keep that context, that big prize in mind.
They knew what they were signing up for
The government has insisted the internal market bill will ensure barrier-free trade across the UK after the Brexit transition period concludes at the end of the year. But former attorney general Geoffrey Cox also spoke out against the plans. He told Times Radio that the government “knew” what it was signing up to when it ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.
What I can say from my perspective is we simply cannot approve or endorse a situation in which we go back on our word, given solemnly not only by the British Government and on behalf of the British Crown, but also by Parliament when we ratified this in February, unless there are extreme circumstances which arrive involving a breach of duty of the good faith by the EU.
In those circumstances, there are then lawful remedies open to us and it is those we should take rather than violating international law and a solemn treaty.
The breaking of the law leads ultimately to very long term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation and it is also a question of honour to me – we signed up, we knew what we were signing.
Cox said there are “legal measures available” for tackling any attempt by the European Union to prevent food being transported between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Going back on its word
Cox said the government had not fully explained the circumstances in which they would use the powers in the internal market bill. He said
I think the fundamental problem at the moment is that it is not clear the circumstances in which the powers taken by the Bill would be used… If the powers are to be used simply to nullify the foreseeable and ordinary consequences of an agreement we signed, that to me is simply to go back on an agreement that both the British Government signed solemnly and Parliament itself ratified in February.
I think it is wrong that the British Government or our Parliament should renege on an agreement on which we gave our solemn word.”
The Brexiteer warned he would not back the UK internal market bill unless ministers dispel the impression they plan to “permanently and unilaterally” rewrite an international agreement.
Cox’s intervention came ahead of MPs debating the legislation on Monday, when the bill returns to the Commons amid growing criticism that breaching international law would jeopardise the UK’s standing in the world.
Outrage across the political spectrum
Johnson appears to be stepping up the rhetoric, as senior Tories prepared to rebel against the legislation. He claimed Brussels could “carve up our country” without his new bill. But outrage at the bill has come from across the political spectrum.
And Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s head of task force for relations with the United Kingdom, has also refuted the suggestion that the agreements could threaten British sovereignty. He also pointed out that Britain knew what it was signing up for, and that the same rules apply to everyone trading with the EU.
Protocol on IE/NI is not a threat to the integrity of the UK. We agreed this delicate compromise with @BorisJohnson & his gov in order to protect peace & stability on island of Ireland. We could not have been clearer about the consequences of #Brexit [1/2]
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) September 13, 2020
Sticking to facts is also essential. A case in point: 🇪🇺 is not refusing to list 🇬🇧 as a third country for food imports (SPS). To be listed, we need to know in full what a country’s rules are, incl. for imports. The same objective process applies to all listed countries [2/2]
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) September 13, 2020
Despite Johnson’s attempts to drum up support, Tory rebels suggested their numbers were growing and the prime minister’s increased rhetoric was just hardening opinions.
The prime minister will probably win an expected vote of the bill’s principles during the second reading of the bill on Monday, as he does have a large Commons majority. But a rebellion could come later with Commons justice committee chair Bob Neill’s amendment, which he said would impose a “parliamentary lock” on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
Featured image via screengrab
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