By Gareth Jones, Public Affairs
In what may seem like news from a different era, the government is tonight facing a potential backbench parliamentary rebellion over Brexit. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will be debated at Second Reading later today, amid growing concern among some MPs about measures in the bill that could break international law.
The bill includes clauses that could override the Northern Ireland protocol, which was written into the Brexit withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. These clauses would override that part of that agreement when it came to goods and would allow the UK to modify or re-interpret “state aid” rules on subsidies for firms in Northern Ireland, if the UK and EU failed to agree a post-Brexit trade deal.
The Government’s justification for taking such actions were outlined over the weekend by UK chief negotiator David Frost on twitter, who argued that the EU has threatened not to include the UK on their list of third countries on food standards, which would effectively make it illegal to move food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Others in the government have argued that the EU is negotiating in bad faith, are deliberately trying to threaten the union and Good Friday Agreement.
These accusations have not convinced everyone – Michel Barnier (the EU’s negotiator) said that no such threat on food standards has been made (also on twitter) and many MPs have noted that the UK has other ways of dealing with the issue if the EU is actually making unreasonable threats in talks, for instance, using the withdrawal agreement’s own arbitration procedure. However, some Conservative MPs who would normally take the government’s side on this issue have been turned off by the government’s rhetoric and Brandon Lewis’s explicit statement in the House of Commons last week that the bill will break international law, albeit “in a specific and limited way”. That statement has prompted much concern about Britain’s standing in the world if it is seen to be defying international law.
This concern is why David Cameron, today, spoke out against the bill’s measures – joining the four other previous prime ministers who have criticised the proposed legislation. However, of more concern to the government will be the intervention of Geoffrey Cox MP, a committed Brexiteer and former Attorney General, who has publicly said he cannot support the Bill because of its implications for international law. Such a move has had the effect of unsettling other wavering MPs, such as Rehman Chishti MP who resigned today from his government role. At this stage, any rebellion in the House of Commons is likely to be limited to a few abstentions, but these developments show that it may escalate to something larger in the subsequent stages of the bill over the coming days.
To many, these parliamentary debates will have a familiar feel to them – however, they may not capture the public’s imagination like previous political disputes on Brexit. Britain has left the EU and is now focused on managing a global pandemic. The government’s majority is now considerable and defeats will be rare. Also, no-one is quite sure what the government’s ultimate rationale is. Is this controversy a negotiating tactic to prompt the EU into offering the UK a better trading deal? Or is it a genuine way of pursuing a no deal outcome? Or is it just a piece of political theatre designed to motivate the Conservative Party’s core support? This may not become clear for another few months.