Tory rebels have forced Boris Johnson on an embarrassing raid, with the PM negotiating a deal to prevent a potential party revolt against a bill that would violate international law.
After two days of private negotiations, the PM agreed to give MPs a vote on when to invoke controversial powers in Britain’s Home Market Bill that would violate the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
The deal came hours after Lord Keen, the UK government’s lawyer for Scotland, resigned. He said he tackled the breaches of the law proposed in the bill and came to the conclusion that he could not defend it.
His departure will put additional pressure on Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and Attorney General Suella Braverman to consider their positions. Dominic Grieve, who previously served as Bravermans, joined calls for them to leave on Wednesday.
Jonathan Jones, the government’s top legal official, had resigned his post over the Internal Market Bill a week earlier.
Johnsons’ new deal with his reluctant MPs is unlikely to comfort angry leaders in Brussels, as the move still gives ministers the power to potentially break international law.
Labor has also sounded the alarm on an aspect of the compromise, which appears to restrict any legal challenge to the use of the new powers, saying it would make the bill worse, not improve it.
The Guardian has learned that France is pushing for the EU to launch swift infringement proceedings against the UK over the bill.
Questions and answers
What is the UK Internal Market Bill?
The Home Market Bill seeks to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Some rules, for example on food safety or air quality, which were previously set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by decentralized administrations or by Westminster. The Home Market Bill insists that decentralized governments must accept goods and services from all nations of the UK, even if their standards differ locally.
This, the government says, is in part aimed at ensuring that international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that the standards and rules are consistent.
The Scottish government has criticized it as a ‘takeover’ of Westminster, and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that make up the UK lowers its standards, on importing chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three countries will have to accept chlorinated chicken as well.
It has become even more controversial because one of its main objectives is to give ministers the power to adopt regulations even if they are contrary to the Withdrawal Agreement concluded with the EU under the Protocol of North Ireland.
The text does not disguise its intention, asserting that the powers contained in the bill have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or national law with which they may be incompatible or incompatible “.
Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott
After a meeting with senior members of the Johnsons Commons office on Wednesday afternoon, No. 10 issued a joint statement with Bob Neill, chairman of the Special Committee on Justice, who tabled an amendment to the bill, and Damian Green , chair of the One Nation caucus. Conservative MPs, many of whom had threatened to rebel on the bill.
The Guardian understands the deal was negotiated by Deputy Chief Brexit Negotiator Oliver Lewis, the former Research Director of Vote Leave, with Chief Negotiator David Frost, currently in Brussels.
The change will give MPs a separate vote to invoke those powers that a Johnson is likely to win with the government majority. In the joint statement, both sides said this would give a clearer and more explicit democratic mandate for the use of those powers, and also provide greater legal certainty.
The government is also set to table another amendment that sets clear limits on the scope and speed of judicial review in the exercise of these powers, the statement said, a move intended to raise concern in legal circles. .
Shadow Attorney General Lord Falconer tweeted: This does not remedy the violations of international law that stem from the bill. And he plans to prevent people who have their private rights taken away by the powers of the bill from complaining. Honestly, it doesn’t get any better.
One of the goals is to give businesses legal certainty that decisions made by ministers using the powers granted by the bill would not be subject to immediate legal challenge.
The statement said there was near unanimous agreement within the party that the government should be able to use these powers as a last resort, that there should be legal certainty and that no further amendments. is needed on these credentials.
Many senior Tories had appeared ready to rebel in support of a Neill amendment next week, to signal their concern over the powers of the bills. Among those who abstained from second reading on Monday for the bill were former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, former Chancellor Sajid Javid and two former secretaries from Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley and Julian Smith.
The five living former British prime ministers had expressed concerns about the bill.
In a meeting in Brussels with ambassadors from the 27 member states on Wednesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier called Downing Streets’ actions a provocation.
He suggested the tabling of the legislation was a tactical move to pressure Brussels to accept a trade deal and iron out problems with the Withdrawal Agreement.
In response, the French President, representing Emmanuel Macrons at the meeting, called on the bloc to go ahead and take legal action, opening up the possibility for the UK to face huge fines.
A number of member states have also raised the issue of confidence after a week of noise from London, including saying the EU is seeking to block Northern Ireland.
This was seen as a sign of weakness in the UK, a source said. One delegation said the UK government was in control of the dissemination of false information and the EU must be prepared to counter such messages.
At the Senior MPs Liaison Committee meeting on Wednesday, Johnson said he believed the EU might not negotiate in good faith with the UK and that the provisions of the bill would prevent the bloc from behave unreasonably if the UK fails to agree on a trade deal.
Asked by Labors Hilary Benn if he thought the EU was negotiating in good faith, the PM replied: I don’t think they are.
The comments contradict Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who said earlier in a separate MEPs meeting that he believed the EU was acting in good faith. Johnson said there was always the possibility that I was wrong and they might prove my suspicions wrong.
Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband said Labor would continue to oppose the bill. This does not solve the problem of breaking the law, damaging our reputation in the world and our future prosperity, he said.
We need a trade agreement with Europe and that is what we were promised in the elections. Breaking our own word and the treaty signed by the Prime Minister puts that at risk. Based on tonight’s statement, this bill still violates international law, reopens the Brexit debate and Labor will continue to oppose it.
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