Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill faces vote in parliament – what happens next?

Rebel Tory MP Bob Neill says ‘growing’ support for his wrecking amendment, as MPs prepare to debate No 10 plan to break international law

Adam Forrest
Monday 14 September 2020 11:28
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Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

Boris Johnson’s plan to break international law by breaching parts of the Brexit divorce treaty faces its first vote in parliament on Monday, amid growing opposition from within the Conservative party.

MPs get the chance to debate the Internal Market Bill – which overrides key parts of the Withdrawal Agreement already agreed with the EU last year – at the second reading stage this afternoon.

With a majority of 80 in the House of Commons, the prime minister is expected to comfortably win an initial vote on the bill’s principles later this evening.

However, he faces a growing rebellion from Tory backbenchers willing to thwart his plan by adding a “parliamentary lock” amendment onto the bill next week. It would give MPs the power to veto any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Up to 30 Conservative MPs are thought to be ready to back the amendment, expected to be put to a vote next Tuesday (22 September). Bob Neill, the Tory MP and justice committee chairman leading the rebellion, said: “I’m confident that support is growing.”

It comes as Mr Johnson’s former attorney general Geoffrey Cox spoke out against the government’s plan, saying it would be “unconscionable” for the UK to override an international treaty.

“No British minister should solemnly undertake to observe treaty obligations with his fingers crossed behind his back,” Mr Cox wrote in The Times.

The newspaper reports that more than a dozen Tory MPs had been waiting for the respected legal figure’s verdict before deciding whether to rebel against the government.

Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox

David Cameron joined other former prime ministers to express his “misgivings” at Mr Johnson’s plan to break international law on Monday.

“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,” said the former Tory leader. “So I do have misgivings about what is being proposed.”

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, who is backing Mr Neill’s amendment, has compared No 10’s strategy to “Nixonian madman theory”.

He said on Sunday: “Britain is one of the founding fathers of modern democracy and international law and at a time when the rules-based order is eroding, we should be seen to defend it rather than undermine it.”

The controversial bill would give UK ministers powers to override the provisions of his own Brexit divorce deal on tariffs, state aid and customs procedures for Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson’s willingness to explicitly break international law has plunged negotiations with the EU back into crisis less than four months before the post-Brexit transition period ends in December.

No 10 has dismissed an ultimatum from Brussels to ditch the bill by the end of September or risk the possibility that trade deal talks would have to be scrapped.

The rift appeared to widen over the weekend when Mr Johnson accused Brussels of threatening to impose a trade border in the Irish Sea which would “destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK”.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier rejected his claim – insisting there was no threat to withholding the “third country” licence granted to nations outside the bloc.

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