A proposed law giving Boris Johnson’s government the power to overcome parts of the Brexit deal with the EU has passed its first hurdle in the Commons.
Deputies supported the Draft Law on Internal Market with 340 votes against and 263.
Ministers say it contains vital safeguards to protect Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if negotiations for a future trade deal break down.
But critics, including a number of Tory MPs, warned that he risked harming the UK by violating international law.
Although the government has a majority of 80 in the Commons, it is preparing for rebellions in the coming weeks as the legislation receives detailed scrutiny.
Some prominent Conservatives, including former Chancellor Sajid Javid, have said they cannot support the final bill unless amended, with a number expected to abstain in Monday’s vote.
Sir Roger Gale, Tory MP for North Thanet in Kent, told BBC Newsnight that he had voted against the bill as a “matter of principle” to uphold international law.
“I think this is damaging our international reputation for honest and fair action at a time when we are ready to start a series of trade negotiations. I had a view that you fight this tooth and nail at every turn.”
He suggested other colleagues were “keeping their fire” until later in the bill’s passage, with a group led by former Minister Sir Bob Neill calling for a “parliamentary blockade” on the government’s ability to exercising powers.
“I’m not surprised from afar that I’m a small minority. I think that could change next Tuesday,” he added.
The bill is designed to allow goods and services to flow freely through England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the EU single market and the customs union on 1 January.
But arguably, it gives the government the power to change aspects of the EU withdrawal agreement, a legally binding agreement that regulates the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU earlier this year.
Ministers say this is an uncertain mechanism in case the EU interprets the agreement, in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol created to avoid a strong border on the island of Ireland, in an “extreme and unreasonable” way.
During a five-hour debate, Mr Johnson claimed that the current EU approach could lead to excessive controls and even tariffs on goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland.
He said the bill would ensure the UK’s “economic and political integrity”, accusing the EU of making unfair demands for “leverage” in trade talks – including a threat to block food exports.
But the ministers also said they would listen to the concerns, insisting that the required powers would only be used if other legal avenues were exhausted and only if MPs voted clearly to activate them.
A government spokesman said it was vital that the bill – which is expected to face fierce opposition in the House of Lords – become law by the end of the year when EU law ceases to apply in the UK.
“It will protect the UK’s territorial integrity and peace in Northern Ireland, preserving trade and jobs on all four sides of the UK after the end of the transition period,” he said.
The prime minister also held a phone call with Conservative members of the House of Lords on Monday evening.
Labor said the prime minister was pulling out of an agreement he himself signed earlier this year, on which Conservative MPs campaigned in the 2019 election and was “destroying” the UK’s reputation.
But the Commons also voted against an Labor amendment to reject the bill outright by 349 votes to 213.
Deputies will now begin scrutiny of the bill on Tuesday with Conservative lawmakers seeking further assurances that the UK will not betray its treaty obligations.
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