Senior Conservatives and Labour believe the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill breaks international law and trashes the UK’s reputation abroad – but Brexiteers threw their weight behind it
Boris Johnson today boasted he can railroad plans to rip up his Brexit deal through Parliament by the end of the year as key legislation cleared its first hurdle in the Commons.
It means the PM’s bid to unilaterally scrap parts of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal has cleared its first Commons hurdle after MPs voted 295 to 221, majority 74, to give key legislation a second reading.
The move has angered the EU and some Tories, who believe the legislation breaks international law and undermines the UK’s global reputation.
Theresa May, who confirmed she would not back the bill, launched a savage attack: “Do I consider it to be legal under international law? Will it achieve its aims? Does it at least maintain the standing of the UK in the eyes of the world? My answer to all three of those questions is no.”
The former PM said of the EU: “I expect they are saying to themselves, why should they negotiate in detail with a Government that shows itself willing to sign an agreement, claim it is a victory, and then try to tear part of it up in less than three years time”.
The PM has said the plan – which hands ministers powers to override parts of the post-Brexit trade pact in Northern Ireland – could now be carried out “fairly rapidly”, with proposals in law by the end of 2022.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, meanwhile, attempted to downplay concerns of MPs by arguing the Bill has a “strong legal justification” and the UK remains committed to seeking a negotiated solution.
Adam Gray / SWNS)
The legislation will hand ministers new powers to override elements of the protocol, in a move opposed by a majority of Stormont politicians, the EU and US President Joe Biden.
The arrangements currently require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as the protocol was originally designed to keep the Irish land border free-flowing.
Under the new plan, green and red channels would be set up to remove extra paperwork for businesses trading within the UK, but with full checks on good entering the EU.
Northern Ireland would qualify from the same tax and spending policies as the rest of the UK, including on VAT.
Most controversially, any disputes would be resolved by independent arbitration and not by the European Court of Justice.
EU Ambassador to the UK João Vale de Almeida also said the bill is both “illegal and unrealistic.”
A number of senior Tories shared their concerns over the legal status of the bill which faces major obstacles in the House of Lords to becoming law.
Ex-Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell said: “Many of us are extremely concerned that the Bill brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty.
“It trashes our international reputation, it threatens a trade war at a time when our economy is flat and it puts us at odds with our most important ally.”
But the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs was expected to back the bill.
The hardline DUP said it would consider returning to power-sharing arrangements at Stormont once the Bill passed through the Commons.
The EU has suggested repeatedly that its own proposals would resolve many of the worst delays at the Irish Sea border – and has restarted legal action against the UK.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he was “hugely disappointed” the Government is continuing to pursue its “unlawful” unilateral approach.
But the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs supported the bill.
Speaking at the G7 summit in the German Alps, Mr Johnson claimed fellow leaders were not even discussing the latest crisis in Britain’s EU deal.
“The interesting thing is how little this conversation is being had, certainly here,” he claimed.
“What we’re trying to do is fix something that I think is very important to our country, which is the balance of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
“You’ve got one tradition, one community that feels that things really aren’t working in a way that they like or understand.”
The PM said the plan could be brought in “fairly rapidly” despite warnings the House of Lords could be a major obstacle to the bill becoming law.
Asked if that meant by the end of the year, he added: “Yes, I think we could do it very fast, Parliament willing.”
The bill would create a “green channel” without any checks for goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are not destined for the Republic.
It would also allow products to be sold in Northern Ireland under either EU or UK rules and give ministers more power to alter tax and spending policies in Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson said: “You’ve got unnecessary barriers to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“All we are saying is you can get rid of those whilst not in anyway endangering the EU Single Market.”
The PM admitted he hoped it would pile pressure on EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic to be more flexible in talks aimed at overhauling the system.
Naomi Smith, CEO of internationalist campaign group Best for Britain, responded after the vote, saying: “On the same day that he has pontificated to the G7 about defending the rules-based global order, the Prime Minister has progressed plans to break international law and undermine the hard won peace in Northern Ireland.
“Johnson promised that Brexit would give sovereign control to the UK Parliament but the bill will instead grant unprecedented and unaccountable powers to his inept and servile cabinet. It is a stain on our international reputation.”