Boris Johnson’s attempt to tear up his own Brexit withdrawal agreement is facing certain defeat in the House of Lords, Lord Heseltine has said.
The former deputy prime minister was the latest in a string of Conservative grandees to denounce the move, after Sir John Major joined Theresa May in warning that the prime minister risked forfeiting trust in Britain around the globe.
As the European Commission demanded urgent talks to discuss Mr Johnson’s plans, Sir John warned the UK risked losing “something beyond price that may never be regained”.
Meanwhile, Downing Street suggested that “ambiguities” in the text of the agreement’s protocol on Northern Ireland were left in the treaty because of Mr Johnson’s haste to meet his own self-imposed deadline to take the UK out of the EU.
Asked why the problems - which Mr Johnson now claims are so serious that he needs to break the law to provide a “safety net” for Northern Ireland - were not thrashed out at the time he agreed the deal last autumn, the PM’s official spokesperson said: “It was agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances.”
He said Mr Johnson had hoped that issues of concern could be sorted out later in a UK/EU Joint Committee led by cabinet minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
The PM’s UK Internal Market Bill, published today, includes plans to allow UK ministers to override the treaty agreement by unilaterally waiving customs documents on goods travelling from Northern Ireland to the British mainland and tariffs on exports travelling the other way and limiting the EU’s ability to curtail their use of state aid subsidies.
As talks to avert a looming no-trade deal Brexit continued in London, commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was "very concerned" by the initiative, which she said would "undermine trust".
"Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement,” she tweeted. “This would break international law and undermines trust.
"Pacta sunt servanda [agreements must be kept] = the foundation of prosperous future relations."
Her warning was of a kind with Sir John’s claim that going back on an international treaty risked wrecking the UK’s reputation around the world.
“For generations, Britain's word - solemnly given - has been accepted by friend and foe,” said the Conservative former prime minister. “Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct.
"Over the last century, as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power. If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained."
Lord Heseltine said the bill would be blocked by peers in the House of Lords horrified by the prime minister’s behaviour.
"I wouldn't have thought it had the ghost of a chance,” the former deputy prime minister told Times Radio’s John Pienaar.
“The chief whip in the Lords, the government chief whip, has indicated anxiety about this.
"No Conservative government that I can think of would ever have done anything like this. They are saying now, 'Oh well, the withdrawal agreement was negotiated in a rush and there were some mistakes'.
“But if they were acting in good faith wouldn't it have been wise to have gone back to the Europeans and said, ‘Look, we all knew it was a bit of a rush’? Wouldn't it have been better to try and sort it out without threatening, without doing so at a time when we are poised on the risk of a no-deal Brexit to add to the absolute decimation of Covid? It is unbelievable that a Conservative government is behaving in this way."
Ministers have argued legislation is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if the two sides are unable to agree a free trade deal before the current Brexit transition period runs out at the end of the year.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson defended the legislation, saying it provided a "legal safety net" to protect against "extreme or irrational interpretations" of the Northern Ireland provisions of the agreement which could lead to the creation of "a border down the Irish Sea".
However, Mr Sefcovic said he had told Mr Gove in a phone call on Tuesday that “the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation and we expect the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement will be fully respected”.
A UK government spokesperson said it welcomed Mr Sefcovic's request for an additional meeting of the joint committee and would look to agree a date with his team.
Irish prime minister Micheal Martin phoned Mr Johnson to “set out in forthright terms his concerns about latest developments in London on Brexit, including the breach of an international treaty, the absence of bilateral engagement and the serious implications for Northern Ireland".
And Joe Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser indicated that the Democratic presidential nominee would not look kindly on anything which disrupted the balance over border arrangements established in the withdrawal agreement.
Anthony Blinken said: “Joe Biden is committed to preserving the hard-earned peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As the UK and EU work out their relationship, any arrangements must protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the return of a hard border.”
In a further sign of unease in Washington, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, warned there was “absolutely no chance” of a US-UK trade deal passing Congress if Mr Johnson’s actions damaged the Good Friday Agreement, which she described as “treasured by the American people” and an inspiration to the world.
The UK’s former ambassador in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch told the BBC’s Newsnight he was not surprised that the head of the government’s legal department had quit over Mr Johnson’s plans.
“You really can’t unilaterally rewrite an international agreement,” he said. “We just don’t do that. First of all I think that it risks the Good Friday Agreement peace settlement in Northern Ireland, if you end up having to impose some sort of hard border.
“Second I think it blows the chance of a UK-EU free trade deal. Michel Barnier has already made that clear and the Irish government has made it clear.”
In a further move, business secretary Alok Sharma announced he would table secondary legislation to remove "redundant" EU state aid rules from the UK statute book.
In a Commons written statement, he said that from 1 January the UK would follow World Trade Organisation rules and parliament alone would have the power to regulate subsidies for business.
The bill, tabled in the Commons, states that "special regard" must be given to Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market and that there should be no new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
It gives ministers the power to modify or "disapply" rules that come into force from the start of next year if the UK and the EU are unable to come to alternative arrangements through a trade deal.
Similar powers would apply over the issue of state aid, effectively giving the UK the ability to override obligations within the Withdrawal Agreement agreed prior to Brexit.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies