The controversial Internal Markets bill has passed its first two House of Commons hurdles this evening as the Labour bid to get it thrown out failed – despite fears over it breaking international law and tearing up parts of the Brexit deal.
The ayes in favour of the Opposition’s amendment amounted to 213 votes, compared to 349 noes, scuppering plans to have the bill scrapped.
MPs voted to give the UK Internal Market Bill a second reading by 340 to 263 – a Government majority of 77.
The Prime Minister said the legislation was necessary to prevent the EU taking an ‘extreme and unreasonable’ interpretation of the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
He said some in Brussels were now threatening to block UK agrifood exports to the EU and to insist on tariffs on all goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
However some senior Conservatives warned they could not support the legislation in its present form after ministers admitted last week that it breached international law.
MPs will begin detailed line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill on Tuesday, with votes expected next week on amendments to the Northern Ireland provisions which some Tories may back.
Boris Johnson today accused the EU of putting a ‘revolver’ on the table during trade talks in the form of an alleged threat to block GB food exports to Northern Ireland as he defended his plans to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement
Michael Gove has now accused the European Union of not always being constructive in talks over post-Brexit trade relations, as he urged legislators to back a government bill that would breach the divorce deal between London and Brussels.
‘The EU has not always been the constructive partner that all of us might have hoped,’ Gove said in closing remarks at the end of a House of Commons debate on the controversial Internal Market bill.
‘We were told that we would get a Canada deal. That’s not on the table,’ said Gove, adding that on the disputed subject of fisheries the EU stance amounted to wanting rights to fish in UK waters just like before Brexit.
It comes after Boris Johnson today accused the European Union of putting a ‘revolver’ on the table during trade talks as he lashed out at the bloc for allegedly threatening to block food exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister said that in recent months the EU had signalled it was willing to go to ‘extreme and unreasonable lengths’ if it does not get its way in negotiations.
He said the bloc wanted to use measures contained within the Brexit divorce deal in a way that goes ‘beyond common sense’ in order to ‘exert leverage against the UK’.
He said the ‘most glaring example’ was the EU suggesting it could ban UK food exports to the bloc which would also ‘create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland’.
The Prime Minister said the EU was effectively threatening to ‘blockade’ the movement of goods ‘within our own country’ as he claimed Brussels was yet to ‘take that particular revolver off the table’.
The PM made the comments in the House of Commons this afternoon as he sought to quash a Tory rebellion over his plans to tear up parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.
But Labour’s shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, who was standing in for Sir Keir Starmer, accused the PM of ‘legislative hooliganism’ and ‘incompetence’.
MPs are due to vote on the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill for the first time this evening. The legislation would enable ministers to override parts of the divorce deal struck with Brussels last year.
Ministers have admitted the proposals would break international law and a growing number of Tory MPs have said they will not be able to support the Bill.
Former chancellor Sajid Javid said this afternoon that it was ‘not clear to me why it is necessary for the UK to break international law’ and as a result he is ‘regretfully unable to support’ the PM’s proposals.
Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, a QC and staunch Brexiteer, echoed a similar sentiment as he branded the idea of breaching international law ‘unconscionable’.
Meanwhile, Tory MP Rehman Chishti this morning quit as the PM’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief because of his opposition to the Bill as he said he believed ‘if we give our word, then we must honour it’.
Separately, David Cameron today became the fifth former prime minister to condemn Mr Johnson’s plans as he said breaking international law should only ever be an ‘absolute final resort’ and that he had ‘misgivings’ about the approach.
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband accused the Prime Minister of ‘legislative hooliganism’
Theresa May’s former legal chief Geoffrey Cox (pictured together in 2019) said it would be ‘unconscionable’ for the Government to override the Brexit divorce deal
Brexit: What happens next?
MPs will vote this evening, likely at 10pm, on whether to give the UK Internal Market Bill its second reading – the first hurdle any new law must clear.
The Government should win the vote easily but all eyes will be on how many Tory MPs abstain or vote against the legislation.
The Bill’s Committee stage will then start tomorrow as MPs scrutinise the nuts and bolts of the Bill and propose amendments.
The major flashpoint is not expected to come until next Monday when MPs start discussing the provisions which relate to Northern Ireland.
An amendment put forward by Tory MP Bob Neill which would give Parliament a veto on any attempt by the PM to override the Withdrawal Agreement is then due to be voted on next Tuesday.
Reports suggest up to 30 Tory MPs could rebel on the amendment which would still not be enough for the Government to lose given it has a majority of 80.
But such an outcome would be massively damaging to Boris Johnson’s authority. Whether or not to punish the rebels by withdrawing the Tory whip would also represent a massive headache for Number 10.
The legislation will enable the UK to unilaterally make decisions on key issues, like customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, contained within the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brussels is adamant that the decisions must be made by a joint committee made up of people from both sides – as set out in the treaty.
But the Government argues its new proposals are necessary in order to protect the integrity of the UK should the two sides be unable to agree terms.
The Government is almost certain to win tonight’s first vote on the legislation as Mr Johnson has an 80-strong majority and backing from the DUP.
However, many Tories are alarmed at the potential impact reneging would have on the UK’s global reputation, and could support an amendment to introduce a ‘parliamentary lock’ later in the process.
Mr Johnson tried to win over Conservative rebels as he told the Commons the legislation ‘should be welcomed by everyone who cares about the sovereignty and integrity of our United Kingdom’.
Setting out his reasons for trying to override parts of the Brexit divorce deal, he said: ‘I regret to have to tell the House that in recent months the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths.
‘Using 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.
‘To take the most glaring example, the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to their satisfaction they might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU.
‘And it gets even worse because under this protocol that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
EU to delay euro clearing decision over Boris Brexit law threat
The European Union is set to delay a decision on allowing clearing houses in London to continue clearing euro transactions for EU-based clients due to Britain’s plan to breach part of the Brexit divorce settlement.
The delay is one of the first warning shots from the EU as MPs vote later on a bill that would breach parts of Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement from the bloc.
Brussels had said it would grant Britain ‘time-limited’ access to euro derivatives clearing from January to avoid huge disruption to markets, as a unit of the London Stock Exchange (LSE) clears over 90 per cent euro-denominated swaps that are widely used by companies.
The European Commission was due to formally take that decision later this week, but is now expected to delay it until around the end of the month, Reuters reported, the source said, citing an a derivatives industry source.
The Commission had no immediate comment.
The delay was linked to Britain’s perceived unpicking of the Withdrawal Agreement it signed with the bloc, the source added.
Britain left the EU in January and transition arrangements that still allow unfettered access to the bloc end on December 31. Without legal certainty of access to the EU, the LSE’s clearing unit LCH must give its clients in the bloc three-months’ notice to move billions of euros worth of swaps positions out of Britain.
Euro clearing has long been a battleground between Britain, to keen to preserve London’s clout as a global finance hub, and EU policymakers, who believe the bulk of activity should reside in the euro zone under the eye of the European Central Bank.
But moving large swaps positions from LCH to rivals such as Deutsche Boerse’s Eurex in Frankfurt in a short time would be costly for banks and unnerve markets.
Brussels had therefore opted to allow more time for this to happen, although it had not said how much time.
If Britain’s bill to override parts of its Brexit divorce settlement becomes law it could sour its attempts to have access to other financial activities in the bloc such as trading shares.
‘Our interlocutors on the other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agricultural transports within our own country.’
He added: ‘I have to say that absurd and self-defeating as that action would be, even as we debate this matter the EU has not taken that particular revolver off the table.
‘I hope that they will do so and that we can reach a Canada-style free trade agreement as well.’
Mr Miliband accused Mr Johnson of presiding over ‘legislative hooliganism’, telling the Commons: ‘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.’
The shadow business secretary said Mr Johnson had previously lauded the Withdrawal Agreement he secured but now he insists it is ‘contradictory and ambiguous’.
Mr Miliband added: ‘What incompetence. What failure of governance. And how dare he try and blame everyone else.
‘Can I say to the Prime Minister, this time he can’t blame (Theresa May), he can’t blame 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 is him. This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure.’
Mr Johnson is facing considerable discontent on the Tory benches over his plans to break international law with a series of senior figures having now set out their opposition to the Bill.
Mr Javid said this afternoon: ‘Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly. Having carefully studied the UK Internal Market Bill it is not clear to me why it is necessary to do so.’
The former chancellor said he ‘cannot support the UK pre-emptively reneging’ on the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘I will therefore regretfully be unable to support the Bill at its second reading, and urge the Government to amend it in the coming days,’ he added.
Meanwhile, Mr Cox, who served as attorney general under Mrs May and Mr Johnson until he was sacked in February, last night broke ranks to condemn the legislation.
What have the five living former PMs said about Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans?
Theresa May: ‘The United Kingdom Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that Withdrawal Agreement into UK legislation. The Government is now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?’
David Cameron: ‘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.’
Gordon Brown: ‘This is a huge act of self harm. We knew there was a debate over fishing and over state aid but then to explode the argument into breaking an international treaty has been condemned by so many people.’
Tony Blair: ‘As the world looks on aghast at the UK, the word of which was once accepted as inviolable, this government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation.’
Sir John Major: ‘For generations, Britain’s word – solemnly given – has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct. Over the last century, as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power. If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.’
He said Mr Johnson should not ‘observe treaty obligations with his fingers crossed behind his back’, adding that he could not support a bill which risked undermining ‘the standing and reputation of Britain in the world’.
Mr Cox – axed from the Cabinet in February’s reshuffle – wrote in The Times: ‘It is unconscionable that this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way.’
He then said this morning that the Government ‘knew’ what it was signing up to when it agreed and the ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.
He told Times Radio: ‘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.’
He continued: ‘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, we simply can’t seek to nullify those ordinary consequences of doing that and I simply can’t support that.’
Number 10 has earlier dismissed the criticism from Mr Cox and said the Bill will ‘protect seamless trade and jobs in all four corners of the United Kingdom following the end of the transition period’.
‘It will guarantee UK companies can trade unhindered in every part of the UK while maintaining world-leading standards for consumers and workers who rely on them,’ the PM’s spokesman said.
‘It will also provide a vital legal safety net, it removes any ambiguity should an agreement not be reached at the Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
‘It protects the integrity of the UK internal market, it ensures ministers can always deliver on their obligations to Northern Ireland and protects the gains from the peace process.’
The Government was rocked this morning by Mr Chishti’s decision to quit as a special envoy.
He said in his resignation letter to Mr Johnson: ‘Having read your letter to colleagues, as well as wider statements on the matter, I will not be able to support this Bill on a matter of principle.
‘I have real concerns with the UK unilaterally breaking its legal commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement.
Tory MP Rehman Chishti today resigned as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief because of his opposition to the UK Internal Market Bill
Mr Chishti said he could not support the legislation because it would ‘unilaterally break’ Britain’s legal commitments
‘During my 10 years in Parliament and before that as a Barrister, I have always acted in a manner which respects the rule of law.
‘I feel very strongly about keeping the commitments we make; if we give our word, then we must honour it.
‘Voting for this Bill as it currently stands would be contrary to the values I hold dearest.’
He added: ‘I am only too sorry that our difference on this matter means that I cannot vote for the Bill in its current form, on a matter of principle, and thereby will not be able to continue to serve as your Special Envoy.’
Mr Chishti was appointed the PM’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief in September last year and was tasked with promoting the UK’s ‘firm stance’ on religious freedom and tolerance around the world.
The role, based out of the Foreign Office, involved supporting people across the globe who are persecuted for their faith or beliefs.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said Mr Johnson thanked Mr Chishti for his service and ‘would wish him well for the future’.
He added: ‘But I think we have very clearly set out the reasons for the measures relating to the Northern Ireland protocol. The PM believes it is critical it is passed.’
Mr Cameron’s intervention this morning means that every living former prime minister has now spoken out against Mr Johnson’s plans, following criticism from Theresa May, Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Mr Cameron told Sky News: ‘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.’
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland (pictured) yesterday defended the Government’s Brexit legislation, saying it was ‘in accordance with the most honourable traditions of the British state’
However, the ex-Tory leader suggested Mr Johnson’s plans should be seen in the wider context of the Government’s attempts to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels.
He said: ‘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.
‘And that’s why I have perhaps held back from saying more up to now.’
A spokesman for the European Commission today reiterated the EU’s position that the Withdrawal Agreement must be stuck to ‘no ifs, no buts’.
‘We have played a straight bat on this,’ the spokesman said.
‘We have set this out extremely clearly, and the rest, frankly, is internal debate in the United Kingdom.’
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland yesterday defended the proposed laws as ‘in accordance with the most honourable traditions of the British state’.
However, he also delivered a thinly-veiled threat to resign if the legislation is abused.
Mr Buckland has faced calls to quit, with critics saying the move is incompatible with his own oath as Lord Chancellor to uphold the law.
‘If I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable then of course I will go,’ Mr Buckland said.
The second reading vote tonight is the first hurdle for the legislation, which caused a storm last week when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted it would break international law.
The EU has threatened to collapse negotiations on a future trade deal unless the UK backs down by the end of the month.
Mr Barnier yesterday said he was ‘not refusing to list’ Britain as a so-called ‘third country’ for food export purposes. But he said the listing could only take place when the UK explained its biosecurity rules
In an exchange with Mr Barnier on Twitter last night, Lord Frost hit back: ‘The EU knows perfectly well all the details of our food standards rules because we are operating EU rules
The main showdown in the Commons is likely to be over an amendment being put together by Tory former minister Bob Neill.
That could attract dozens of Tory rebels next week, although it still looks difficult to overturn the government’s massive 80 seat majority.
Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier yesterday had a blazing row about the food exports issue on Twitter.
Mr Barnier denied threatening to block British food exports if trade talks collapsed.
But Lord Frost said the EU negotiator ‘explicitly’ made the threat and warned it could lead to food from Great Britain being banned from sale in Northern Ireland.
Eau no! End of perfume bargains at duty-free
Duty-free bargains at airports will end on goods including perfume, clothing and electronics from January 1.
Ministers announced tax savings will now only apply to sales of alcohol and tobacco.
The decision, which affects all outbound passengers, has been called a ‘hammer blow’ to struggling airports. As much as 40 per cent of their income comes from airside retailers.
Industry experts say it could lead to thousands of job losses as shops pull out of airports.
They fear some regional airports could even go bust.
It has intensified calls for an airport Covid testing regime to re-open Britain’s skies.
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said: ‘Passengers will be disincentivised from making purchases as they travel through the UK.
‘Many foreign visitors will now choose to go elsewhere, attracted by the beneficial tax and excise regimes of our European competitors.’
Francois Bourienne, chair of the UK Travel Retail Forum, added: ‘It may well be the best gift the UK could have given the EU as well as a massive blow for UK plc.’
The Treasury said the decision was taken ‘as the tax concession was not always passed on to consumers in the airport’.