UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a rebellion by more than 30 Conservative lawmakers on Monday night (14 September) as his controversial Internal Market bill moved a step closer to becoming law.
Thirty Tory MPs abstained and two voted against the bill which would override the Irish Protocol, part of the Withdrawal Agreement that took the UK out of the EU in January. The Democratic Unionist party, which opposed the Withdrawal Agreement because of the inclusion of the Northern Ireland protocol, also backed the government.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday evening, Johnson said the bill was “a package of protective powers” that was “essential to guaranteeing the integrity and sovereignty of the UK” and pinned the blame for needing it on the EU’s “extreme” approach and “lack of common sense”.
Johnson also repeated his accusation that the EU was acting in ‘bad faith’ and threatening to blockade and prevent agricultural goods travelling from the UK to Northern Ireland.
“Absurd and self-defeating as that action would be…the EU still have not taken this revolver off the table,” he told MPs.
However, opposition parties and a number of former Conservative ministers including five of the party’s former leaders have strongly criticised the bill, warning that it would trash the UK’s reputation
The Internal Market Bill, designed to govern trade within the UK’s four nations, gives UK ministers powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods that will come into force from 1 January, when the UK leaves the EU’s single market, if a successor trade agreement is not reached. It would also overturn state aid rules in Northern Ireland.
The row threatens to derail talks on an EU-UK trade deal that had already hit an impasse over the UK’s future state aid regime and fisheries.
Last week the European Commission gave Johnson until the end of September to withdraw the bill and threatened to take legal action against the UK, with Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič describing the bill as an “extremely serious violation” of the Withdrawal Agreement which had “seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK”.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney described the bill as the latest example of the Johnson government’s “erratic” approach to the talks, which had “damaged the relationships, and will put a strain on the negotiations”.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland, was negotiated and agreed by Johnson last autumn.
“We signed the WA last year in the hope that the EU would be reasonable,” said Johnson.
Labour’s Ed Miliband, deputising for party leader Keir Starmer who was forced to self-isolate at home, accused Johnson of “legislative hooliganism” for threatening to break a treaty that he had negotiated and successfully won an election campaigning on.
“Either he was not straight with the country in the first place or he did not understand it,” said Miliband.
However, although the Johnson government wants to fast-track the law so that it can be on the statute in the event that an EU-UK trade pact is not finalised before the end of 2020, it is likely to face difficulties in the House of Lords, where Conservative lawmakers are in a minority. Should the Lords oppose the bill, they could delay it by one year.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]