The UK Internal Market Bill seeks to override the Brexit divorce deal, thereby breaching international law, in a bid to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It also sets out the way that trade within the UK will work once outside the EU’s single market and customs union, amid concerns in Westminster that Brussels could seek to disrupt food goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland as part of trade talks.
But the Tory chairman of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill, said he cannot vote in favour of the Bill at second reading unless clauses giving ministers powers to modify or disapply rules relating to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland are removed.
Sir Bob told the Commons: “I see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Michael Gove) listening, I hope he’ll be able to go further than the Prime Minister, either tonight or in the course of this Bill, and assure us that those provisions will not be brought into effect unless and until every one of those legal mechanisms open to us have been exhausted and unless and until there has been a specific vote of this House.
“I hope that we will take the opportunity to change and improve these clauses and the way in which they might operate so that we do not fall into a means of damaging our reputation.
“That is why I can’t support the Bill tonight. I hope that we will see amendments to change what I believe are egregious and needless and potentially damaging elements of part five of the Bill.”
Conservative Charles Walker called on the Government to “exhaust all other options before we press the nuclear button”.
“I’m not going to be voting for this Bill at second reading because if you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised when it bites you back. We are all Members of Parliament and we deserve to be taken seriously,” he told MPs.
Imran Ahmad Khan became the first of the new 2019 intake of MPs from the Government’s own party to announce he will not vote for the Bill.
“Whilst I stand four-square behind the Government’s policies and objectives, including those advanced by the UK Internal Market Bill, I cannot vote for legislation that a Cabinet minister stated from the despatch box will break international law,” he told MPs.
Former attorney general Jeremy Wright agreed, adding: “If we break (international laws) ourselves we weaken our authority to make the arguments the world’s most vulnerable need us to make.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Mitchell warned the Government that while he has “no hesitation in supporting the second reading” of the UK Internal Market Bill, he will vote against anything that breaches international law.
He said: “Now, I’ve voted in ways in this House that I have regretted in the past. I voted for Section 28, I voted for the poll tax and I voted with the then prime minister on Iraq.
“But I don’t believe I’ve ever gone into a lobby to vote in a way that I knew was wrong and I won’t be doing it on this occasion either.”
Another former minister, Sir Oliver Heald, expressed his unhappiness at the Government claiming precedent for breaking international law.
He said: “Can I just also say that I was surprised to see this justified by the precedent, allegedly, of the Finance Act 2013 General Anti-Abuse Rule by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
“I was a law officer at the time, Dominic Grieve was attorney general.
“And one thing I can say about Dominic Grieve is that he was very correct and made sure that Government legislation did not offend the rule of law – he was extremely painstaking. And that Act did not breach Britain’s treaty obligations.”
However, other Conservative MPs defended the Government’s Bill.
Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) said: “In light of the EU’s continued resistance to a mutually beneficial free trade agreement, a no deal would be our only available option and this Bill makes provision for that.”
Former minister Sir Christopher Chope said the EU was not “sincerely co-operating” with the UK in trade talks.
He added: “If the EU carries out all its threats then it will destroy the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and it will deprive us of the opportunity to administer for the whole of the United Kingdom with internal trade arrangements.
The Prime Minister opened the debate on Monday by insisting the Bill is “essential for guaranteeing the economic and political integrity of the United Kingdom”.
He said: “I regret to have to tell the House that in recent months the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths using the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that goes well beyond common sense simply to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free trade agreement.
“To take the most glaring example, the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to their satisfaction, they might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU.
“And it gets even worse. Because under this protocol that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“Our interlocutors on the other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agriculture transports within our own country.”
The Prime Minister added the EU has yet to take “that revolver” off the table.
“Let us seize the opportunity presented by this Bill and send a message of unity and resolve,” he told MPs.
“Let’s say together to our European friends that we want a great future relationship and a fantastic free trade deal.”