A cabinet minister has insisted the government will reinsert controversial clauses to the international law-breaking Internal Markets Bill if they are stripped out by the House of Lords later today.
The move, which could set the UK on collision course with US president-elect Joe Biden, comes as Boris Johnson faces the prospect of a considerable defeat in the upper chamber over the legislation that seeks to override the EU withdrawal agreement.
Ministers defended the Bill earlier this year as a safety net if trade talks with Brussels are inconclusive by the end of the year while Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis admitted the legislation breaks international law in a “very specific and limited way”.
Pressed on Sky News whether the government will reinsert the clauses if the House of Lords rips them out of the Bill at committee stage, George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “We will.
“The UK Internal Market Bill is not about undermining the Belfast Agreement, it’s about standing behind it, making sure that it works and looking after the interests of Northern Ireland, making sure the peace and stability that’s been hard-won there can carry on.”
"The limited number of areas where we took a power subject to Parliament agreeing it, to be able to create legal clarity and legal certainty should there be areas of the joint-committee process in our negotiations with the EU, if there are areas that can't be agreed, we've got to provide that legal certainty and clarity – that's all the Bill does."
During the presidential campaign, Mr Biden, who defeated Donald Trump in the fight for the White House at the weekend, expressed deep concern over the legislation, saying “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border”.
Asked whether it was time to “think again” over the contentious Bill, Mr Eustice also told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think this Bill is very important.
“It also protects the internal market in the UK for every part of the UK and there are these clauses as well which are important which is if there are loose ends at the end of the Joint Committee negotiation process that’s going on that can’t be resolved another way.”
He insisted the powers in the Bill will not need to be used if a trade deal with the EU is reached, and when pressed on the prospect of a future deal with the US, given Mr Biden’s previous comments, he said: “If this was understood exactly what this Bill was about rather than how it’s sometimes caricatured, this is about providing legal clarity, legal certainty and protecting the internal market in the UK, but crucially standing behind the Belfast agreement.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab declined to say on Sunday whether the government would ditch the law-breaking Bill, and insisted: “We’ve been very clear we are absolutely committed to respect the Good Friday Agreement but our agreement is… it is the EU who has pressure on that with the approach it has taken.”
Former prime minister Gordon Brown also warned that the president-elect would be “talked about” in the House of Lords later today as peers tell the government they will risk the chances of a trade deal with the US if they “don’t sort out” the Internal Markets Bill.
He also suggested a UK-US trade deal, which Mr Trump often spoke warmly of, would not “immediately” be a realistic option under Mr Biden’s presidency but over time could become a “possibility”.
Mr Brown said he expected the president-elect to visit Britain twice in his first year in office for the G7 and the Glasgow climate summit, and described him as a “natural negotiator”.
“If Ronald Reagan was the great communicator, Joe Biden is the great conciliator,” the former Labour leader said.
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