Brexit

MPs express anger during Internal Market Bill debate

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended the controversial UK Internal Market Bill at Westminster ahead of a vote last night. Picture by Frank Augstein
Paul Ainsworth

BORIS Johnson last night defended his attempts to override aspects of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement by suggesting the EU was being unreasonable and failing to negotiate in good faith.

The prime minister insisted the legislation, which would put the UK in breach of international law by breaking the terms of the treaty signed with Brussels, was a necessary "legal safety net" to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As he sought to quell a growing Tory revolt over the measures, he claimed that passing the legislation would strengthen the hand of negotiators trying to strike a trade deal with the EU.

Mr Johnson's controversial plan to override key elements of the Brexit deal he signed with Brussels cleared its first Commons hurdle despite deep misgivings by some senior Tories.

MPs voted to give the UK Internal Market Bill a second reading by 340 to 263 - a majority of 77.

Two Tory MPs - Sir Roger Gale and Andrew Percy - voted against the Bill, while 30 did not cast a vote although some may have been "paired" with opposition MPs.

The British government's tally was bolstered by the support of seven DUP MPs.

In an effort to reassure Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson said the measures contained in the Internal Market Bill were an "insurance policy" that he hoped would "never be invoked" if agreement with the EU was reached.

A key part of the agreement on trade is the Northern Ireland protocol designed to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland. Mr Johnson has claimed the EU is threatening to impose a customs border in the Irish Sea, separating the north from the rest of the UK.

The EU has warned that overriding parts of the international legislation will place the chance of securing a trade deal at risk.

Ahead of last night's Westminster session the prime minister was facing threats of a rebellion from within his own party as former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said he would be voting against the legislation, which he claimed would cause "unconscionable" damage to the UK's reputation.

Downing Street has insisted the new bill "protects" the Good Friday Agreement, while the DUP has welcomed the bill and said it was tabling an amendment which will allow the UK to set state aid rules on goods in the north, rather than the EU.

Speaking at the dispatch box Mr Johnson said the bill would "preserve one of the crucial achievements of the last three centuries, namely our British ability to trade freely across the whole of these islands".

During the debate, Labour's shadow business secretary Ed Miliband ridiculed Mr Johnson's previous election catchphrase of "get Brexit done" by warning the bill "gets Brexit undone", adding: "I never thought respecting international law would in my lifetime be a matter of disagreement."

The DUP's East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: "If this bill is an attempt to undo some of the damage which was done by the Withdrawal Agreement, and to respond to the points which Arlene Foster and other ministers have pressed the government to address, then we welcome it."

SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood said: "The protocol is there to protect us from a hard border. That's why it's there. Without that protocol, the only thing we are being offered to protect us is the word of a man whose word can clearly not be trusted."

Meanwhile, Alliance MP for North Down, Stephen Farry, accused the British government of "twisting and distorting the meaning of the Good Friday Agreement for their own political ends".

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