Boris Johnson wanted to provoke a Brexit crisis – now he’s got one

The prime minister has sent out his proxies to cause legal mayhem – safe in the knowledge that Leave voters will back him, says John Rentoul

Thursday 10 September 2020 18:54 BST
Boris Johnson has got what he wants
Boris Johnson has got what he wants

Why has Boris Johnson started an unwinnable battle over a legal technicality? Can it really be that he simply wants to dramatise the Brexit divide in British politics, because he thinks it will, in a Trump-like way, reinforce his support among the Leaver half of the population?  

The prime minister’s attempt to break international law certainly seems doomed. Not because the European Commission will take the UK to court, as its vice president, Maros Sefcovic, threatened to do today. The “mechanisms and legal remedies” of which his statement spoke mainly involve appealing to the arbitration procedure set out in the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, but that would take months if not years.  

No, the reason Johnson’s provocation will fizzle out is that he won’t be able to get the bill – the UK internal market bill, which threatens to override the withdrawal agreement – through parliament. I am not sure that 39 Conservative MPs will vote against a bill that contains express provision for breaking international law. Sirs Robert Neill and Roger Gale will not be the only Tory backbenchers to say they’ll vote against it, but there may not be enough of them to overturn the government’s majority. Theresa May made her opposition clear in the Commons on Tuesday, but I’m not convinced she would go so far as to vote against her successor.  

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