Brexit trade deal wins support of Conservative ERG MPs

Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal is expected to sail through the parliamentary ratification process on Wednesday after hardline Eurosceptics in the European Research Group of Conservative MPs indicated they would vote in favour of the agreement.

Despite accusations of “betrayal” from the fishing communities they pledged to support, the legal advisory committee of the ERG has concluded the deal meets their demands including preserving UK sovereignty.

The verdict from the ERG’s so-called “star chamber” – which has been poring over the fine print of the 1,246-page trade agreement – came as MPs were given less than 24 hours to study the draft legislation to ratify the deal sealed on Christmas Eve.

The endorsement means the deal is more or less assured obstacle-free passage through parliament after legislation is tabled to ratify it at 9.30am on Wednesday – and will come as welcome news in Downing Street ahead of Wednesday’s commons vote.

In an indication of its support for the agreement, the legal advisory committee of the European Research Group (ERG) declared that the deal with Brussels “preserves the UK’s sovereignty”.

The hardline group of Brexiters, which is thought to number about 70 members, represented a constant thorn in Theresa May’s side during her turbulent time in No 10.

In a statement on Tuesday, the group’s legal advisory committee, including Sir Bill Cash and David Jones, said: “Our overall conclusion is that the agreement preserves the UK’s sovereignty as a matter of law and fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties.

“The ‘level playing field’ clauses go further than in comparable trade agreements, but their impact on the practical exercise of sovereignty is likely to be limited if addressed by a robust government.

“In any event they do not prevent the UK from changing its laws as it sees fit at a risk of tariff countermeasures, and if those were unacceptable the agreement could be terminated on 12 months’ notice.”

Jones, who is the ERG’s deputy chairman, told the Guardian he would be voting for the deal, adding: “What this does is replaces the arrangements under the treaty on [the] European Union, which is what we were in before as a member state, with something that is a straightforward, clear, free trade agreement of a sort that Conservatives are supportive of.

“Just as we want a free trade agreement with the US, we want a free trade agreement with the EU and this gives us that free trade agreement but we’re not subject to its structures. What this agreement does is something that many commentators said was impossible.”

Among reasons it noted that the agreement was “sovereignty compliant as a matter of law”, the committee – which also included Martin Howe QC, Barnabas Reynolds, Christopher Howarth and Emily Law – said it reaffirmed the sovereignty of the UK, there was an independent arbitrator panel for any disputes and that the country remained “free to make its own laws subject to potential tariff and trade consequences if these significantly distort trade between the UK and the EU”.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, an ERG member, said: “This is an endorsement of the deal of stunning clarity and underlines how Boris has pulled off what so many insisted was having your cake and eating it, or was never going to be granted.”

The European Union (future relationship) bill, should get 21 days of scrutiny under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, but is being pushed through parliament at breakneck speed to ensure Brexit enters into force at 11pm on 31 December, the legal end to the transition period.

One Labour source quipped that planning permission for a house would get more scrutiny than the trade deal.

Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, said the danger with rushing through legislation was that it could make bad law.

“Parliamentary scrutiny is not just about politics, it’s about quality of law on the statute books,” he said.

“The thing about a complex legal document like the trade deal that has been put together quickly is that it might contain ambiguities and contradictions and you need to read it not just once to absorb it and come up with a settled view and there is no time for that,” he said.

The Labour party is expected to seek amendments to the bill to force the UK government to produce biannual economic impact assessments on the deal, to make sure the new UK-EU partnership council is accountable to parliament.

It fears that scrutiny of the council, which will implement and enforce the deal, will become a private talking shop like the joint committee set up after the withdrawal agreement. The minutes of the last meeting was just one page long with no detail on discussions on the northern Ireland protocol made public.

Labour is also seeking improvements on the access to SISII, the EU database of stolen goods and missing persons, a reconsideration on the Erasmus university exchange programme Johnson quit and visa-free travel for performers in the EU.


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