Ex-premier Gordon Brown became the latest political grandee to speak out, warning that No10’s tactics risked leaving the UK “in a battle with Europe for years ahead” when it should be focusing on repairing the economy.
While Mr Brown’s outrage did not trouble Downing Street, it could not ignore former Conservative leader Lord Howard, who this morning said he would be “very surprised” if Mr Johnson’s Bill got through the Lords.
The Bill has been roundly condemned by the EU which last night threatened to call off talks on a free trade deal unless it was withdrawn by the end of the month.
It now faces rebellions in both Houses, with Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Justice Select Committee, leading an amendment that would give Parliament a veto over future attempts by the Government to disregard or overturn parts of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), the deal that Mr Johnson signed in January that set rules for Britain’s departure from the EU.
Tory whips were arguing that Sir Bob’s amendment was flawed and would not have the effect the rebels wanted. With a Government majority of 80, it would take 40 rebels for the Bill to be changed in the Commons.
The focus was turning to the Lords where a series of grandees, including Brexiteers like Lord Howard and ex-chancellor Lord Lamont, have savaged the Bill. One peer said: “My impression is that silent loyalists who never usually rebel are quietly planning to make a stand on this one, which means it must be in danger.”
The Internal Market Bill was published on Wednesday in what many MPs saw as a provocative act during fragile trade talks with the EU.
According to the Government, its purpose is to maintain smooth trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU rules on December 31.
However, the real purpose, MPs believe, is to wriggle out of the Prime Minister’s promise to maintain at all costs an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a concession that Mr Johnson may regret because it reduced his leverage in the talks.
Lord Howard told Sky News: “I think this makes a no-deal more likely.” Former Tory leaders Sir John Major and Theresa May have also attacked the Bill.
Mr Brown told Good Morning Britain he feared long-term consequences. “My fear is not just a no-deal; my fear is we’ll have such a minimal deal that we’ll be in battle with Europe for years ahead and that really does not make sense if we want people to have jobs in our economy.”
Asked to explain the “harms” that could arise in Northern Ireland in future under the Withdrawal Agreement, the Business Department gave two examples to the Evening Standard of how diverging regulations in future could damage prosperity.
In one example, the UK moves to regulate electricians, plumbers and technicians working in the construction industry, such as by requiring vocational training, but Northern Ireland introduces a different scheme. “This could mean that skilled workers in Great Britain might not be recognised in Northern Ireland and vice versa,” said the department. Therefore the Bill will maintain mutual recognition of qualifications.
In the second example, professionals working in emerging industries such as Artificial Intelligence could begin to be regulated differently in the burgeoning AI cluster in Belfast. These variations could weaken investment and undermine the UK’s competitiveness in a growing field.
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi denied reneging on the WA. “The Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol we are absolutely committed to,” he asserted on BBC Breakfast. “It’s not about ‘if’ we implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Irish protocol, it’s ‘how’ we implement it.”
The row overshadowed the first signing of a major post-Brexit trade deal this morning — an agreement with Japan worth £15 billion.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said it was a “historic moment” that not only preserved current trade but added protection for music from piracy and more access for the City in Tokyo. The value is worth around 0.07 per cent of GDP.