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Northern Ireland bill becomes part of bid to stop no-deal

If, as expected, Boris Johnson wins the Tory leadership contest next Tuesday, he will find that his hands have been tied somewhat by deft manoeuvring on the part of Remain MPs and cabinet ministers.

Led by chancellor Philip Hammond, Tory rebels either voted against the government or abstained on an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill which requires fortnightly progress reports on restoring devolution to be provided to Westminster from September to December.

The real purpose of this amendment is not to update MPs on the political talks at Stormont but to prevent the new prime minister from suspending parliament in order to facilitate a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Hammond, who has vowed to do everything in his power to stop a no-deal, seems determined to make life difficult for Mr Johnson.

The chancellor knows that his days are numbered but even so, there was surprise at the scale of the Tory rebellion in the House of Commons on Thursday.

MPs backed the amendment by 315 votes to 274, a majority of 41 which underlines to the incoming government the level of opposition that exists to any attempt to suspend parliament or take the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31.

What is also intriguing about the political tactics being deployed is the way a 'fairly simple' bill from the Northern Ireland Office aimed at pushing back the deadline for a Stormont election has been seized upon by MPs for other purposes.

We have already seen amendments aimed at liberalising same-sex marriage and abortion, both highly sensitive issues in Northern Ireland, being passed by significant majorities in the Commons.

Now senior Remain Tories have used the bill to try to frustrate Boris Johnson's Brexit plans.

However, having brought proposed legislation before parliament, secretary of state Karen Bradley did not even turn up to support her own bill, something that did not go unnoticed at Westminster.

We are told she was at the Stormont talks on Thursday but her absence from the vote is perhaps par for the course for a

completely disengaged and uninterested minister.

Like Mr Hammond, it may be that Mrs Bradley will no longer in post after next week and few here will be sorry to see her go.

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