Brexit: Boris Johnson’s special envoy and Tory MP resigns from government after amended bill breaks law

Rehman Chishti says he can’t support legislation in its current form

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 14 September 2020 14:20
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Boris Johnson is facing a rebellion of MPs over the plans
Boris Johnson is facing a rebellion of MPs over the plans

A Conservative MP has resigned from the government over Boris Johnson’s plan to break international law over Northern Ireland.

Rehman Chishti, the MP for Gillingham and Rainham in Kent, said he was quitting as the government’s special envoy for freedom of religion.

The move came as Downing Street revealed that Mr Johnson is taking the highly unusual step of opening the debate on the UK Internal Market Bill in the House of Commons this afternoon

A second reading debate would normally be opened by a minister from the department responsible for the bill - in this case business secretary Alok Sharma.

The fact that the prime minister feels it necessary to appear in the chamber, and to take up to five and a half hours of questions from MPs, is an indication of the pressure he is under from opposition to his plans.

Announcing his resignation as the PM’s envoy, the normally loyal Mr Chishti said: “I can’t support Internal Market Bill in its current form, which unilaterally break UK’s legal commitments.

“As an MP for 10 years and former barrister, values of respecting rule of law and honouring one’s word are dear to me.”

The resignation is significant because it is the first from the government over the issue, though the civil service head of Whitehall’s legal department quit last week after refusing to go along with the bill.

The prime minister has been criticised for his plan to pass a law allowing him override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement; all the UK’s living former prime ministers have spoken out against the move.

Up to 30 Tory MPs are expected to back a rebel amendment tabled by Sir Bob Neill, the chair of the justice select committee and set to come to a vote on Tuesday next week. The amendment would give MPs a veto on any attempt to break the agreement by requiring them to vote on the date on which the controversial decisions come into effect.

But the bill is expected to survive votes this evening on an opposition “reasoned amendment” seeking to bring an immediate halt to its progress through parliament.

In a letter to the prime minister sent on Monday, the Kent MP Mr Chishti said: "Having read your letter to colleagues, as well as wider statements on the matter, I will not be able to support this Bill on a matter of principle.

"I have real concerns with the UK unilaterally breaking its legal commitments under the withdrawal agreement. During my 10 years in parliament and before that as a barristers, I have always acted in a matter which respects the rule of law.

"I feel strongly about keeping the commitments we make; if we give our word, then we must honour it. Voting for this Bill as it currently stands would be contrary to the values I hold dearest."

 Geoffrey Cox QC, the former attorney general, on Sunday night openly damned the plans, saying he could not support them and that they were "unconscionable”.

But with an effective working majority of around 87 MPs it is all but certain that Mr Johnson will get his way, unless there are a large number of abstentions on the Tory backbenches. MPs will have the opportunity to debate the issue on Monday afternoon at the bill’s second reading.

Asked about Mr Chishti’s resignation, the PM’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister thanks him for his service and would wish him well for the future. 

"But we have very clearly set out the reasons for the measures related to the Northern Ireland protocol and the PM believes it is critical that this legislation is passed.”

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