Government wins second reading vote on internal market bill with majority of 77
‘What incompetence! What failure of governance!’ – Miliband on Johnson
Johnson and Miliband’s opening speeches – Snap verdict
Johnson says MPs would get vote on any proposal to use powers in internal market bill to overrride withdrawal agreement
Johnson claims some in EU have floated plan for tariffs on all GB/NI trade in event of no deal
Boris Johnson opens debate on internal market bill
Sajid Javid joins Tory rebels saying he can’t back internal market bill in current form
Here is PA Media’s report.
Boris Johnson’s controversial plan to override key elements of the Brexit deal he signed with Brussels has cleared its first Commons hurdle despite deep misgivings by some senior Tories.
MPs voted to give the internal market bill a second reading by 340 to 263 – a government majority of 77.
The prime minister said the legislation was necessary to prevent the EU taking an “extreme and unreasonable” interpretation of the provisions in the withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
He said some in Brussels were now threatening to “blockade” UK agri-food exports to the EU and to insist on tariffs on all goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
However, some senior Conservatives warned they could not support the legislation in its present form after ministers admitted last week that it breached international law.
MPs will begin detailed line-by-line scrutiny of the bill tomorrow, with votes expected next week on amendments to the Northern Ireland provisions which some Tories may back.
Even before the debate began, former prime minister David Cameron expressed his “misgivings” and former chancellor Sajid Javid and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox said they could not support the overwriting of the withdrawal agreement.
The intervention by Cameron – who said passing legislation which breaks international treaty obligations was “the very, very last thing you should contemplate” – means all five living former prime ministers have spoken out against the bill.
In the Commons, Johnson – who took the unusual step of opening the debate himself – said the “protective” measures were necessary because the EU was now trying to “leverage” the Northern Ireland protocol in the talks on a post-Brexit free trade deal.
He said Brussels negotiators were threatening to ban the sale of UK agri-food products anywhere in the EU, creating an “instant and automatic” prohibition on the movement of such goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Absurd and self-defeating as that action would be even as we debate this matter, the EU still have not taken this revolver off the table.
Johnson said some on the EU side even wanted to designate all goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland as being “at risk” of entering the EU single market, making them liable to EU tariffs.
He said it could mean levies of 61% on Welsh lamb, 90% on Scottish beef and 100% on Devonshire clotted cream, and would “carve tariff borders across our own country”.
We cannot have a situation where the very boundaries of our country could be dictated by a foreign power or international organisation. No British prime minister, no government, no parliament could ever accept such an imposition.
Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband – standing in for Sir Keir Starmer who is in coronavirus self-isolation – said Johnson had only himself to blame for signing up to the withdrawal agreement.
Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it.Because a competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with.
A number of Tory former ministers made clear that they would not support any measure which breached international law, including Andrew Mitchell, Sir Oliver Heald and another former attorney general Jeremy Wright.
Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the powerful Tory backbench 1922 Committee, and Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan – a member of last year’s new intake of Conservative MPs – said they would not be supporting the bill at second reading.
Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Commons justice committee who has tabled an amendment requiring a vote of parliament before ministers can exercise the new powers in the Bill, urged MPs to “take the opportunity to change and improve these clauses”.
Earlier the intervention of Cox, a committed Brexiteer, was seen as particularly significant as he was attorney general when Johnson signed the withdrawal agreement and his legal advice was crucial in the negotiations.
He told Times Radio the government “knew” what it was signing up to when it ratified the withdrawal agreement.
The breaking of the law leads ultimately to very long-term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation and it is also a question of honour to me. We signed up, we knew what we were signing, we simply can’t seek to nullify those ordinary consequences of doing that and I simply can’t support that.
Tallying the number of Tory rebels and abstentions has begun. Here are some estimates:
Government wins second reading vote on internal market bill with majority of 77
MPs have voted to approve the internal market bill at its second reading, with a government majority of 77, despite concerns it would give Boris Johnson’s government the power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement and could breach international law.
The government was widely expected to win the vote, with the focus really on the size of its victory ie Tory rebellions and the number of abstentions. The result indicates a fair number of Tory abstentions, but these are tricky as some may have abstained or could just be away at the moment. Still, this may become more pronounced next week and we will be keeping an eye on the voting lists as they are published.
The bill will now move to committee stage to be debated and amended further.
Labour’s amendment to block a second reading of the internal market bill has been defeated by 213 votes to 349, a government majority of 136.
MPs are now voting on the second reading of the bill itself. The result is expected shortly.
The bill is expected to pass its first parliamentary test, despite the reservations of many MPs that it undermines a section of the withdrawal agreement – an international treaty – dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol and breaches international law. MPs are voting on Labour’s amendment that the bill be rejected on those grounds.
A number of Conservative MPs, including the former chancellor Sajid Javid, have said they will not support the bill as it stands and some could abstain in the hope that the government will back an amendment next week by the chair of the justice select committee, Sir Bob Neill, which would require parliamentary approval before any future decision could be made by the government to disapply the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.
The government has not ruled out the possibility that rebels could lose the Conservative whip.
The result is expected shortly.
A socially distanced division is taking place now.
As we wait for the vote on the internal market bill to take place, here are some images from the debate from the official Commons photographer.
Here is the moment Ed Miliband challenged Boris Johnson to explain how the internal market bill would protect Northern Ireland from the threat of a potential food “blockade” that the prime minister claims to exist.
Speaking in place of Sir Keir Starmer, who is self-isolating at home, the shadow business secretary and former Labour leader described the prime minister as “cavalier” said this isn’t an argument about remain versus leave, but rather “right and wrong”.
- Ed Miliband accused the prime minister of a “failure of governance” as he challenged Boris Johnson to explain how the internal market bill will protect Northern Ireland from a potential – what Johnson calls – food “blockade”. In his speech, the shadow business secretary and former Labour leader said the prime minister had to take responsibility for the failure of the deal he previously called “a triumph”, said was “oven ready” and on which he fought and won the last election.
- Johnson promised in his opening speech that MPs would get a vote on any future decision to use powers in the bill to override the withdrawal agreement. More than 20 Tory MPs said today they planned to abstain on the bill with a number hoping the government will back an amendment next week by the Tory chair of the justice select committee, Sir Bob Neill, which would require parliamentary approval before any future decision could be made by the government to disapply the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.
- The Tory former attorney general, Jeremy Wright, said he was “profoundly disturbed” by the bill, meaning every Conservative attorney general since 2010 bar the incumbent Suella Braverman – Dominic Grieve, Wright and Geoffrey Cox – has been critical of the bill.
- The Tory chairman of the justice select committee, Sir Bob Neill, said that at present he has “real concerns” with the bill and could not support it as it stands. Among supporters of his amendment are Sir Oliver Heald who told the Commons: “I do have concerns about part five of the bill, because for our country to break its word and to breach international law is not something that we do.” My colleague Peter Walker has compiled a list of Brexit-backing Conservatives and former lawyers expected to rebel or abstain at the vote tonight.
The politics live blog will be paused for now, thank you all for reading along so far. We may be back later as the debate continues.
Heald also expressed his unhappiness at the UK government claiming precedent for breaking international law.
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. This was made clear by ministers at the time and I cannot recall anyone arguing that it did.
Sir Oliver Heald, the Tory MP for Hertfordshire North East, said he has concerns about part five of the bill.
But I do have concerns about part five of the bill, because for our country to break its word and to breach international law is not something that we do.
The former minister added:
Britain stands as a rule of law country and is respected across the world for its stance. All the prime ministers that I served under – that’s three of them – have come out with grave concerns about this bill on the point that I’m concerned about.
I would just comment that Margaret Thatcher made clear herself how important it is on saying ‘democracy is not enough without a love of liberty and the rule of law’.
He pressed the government and the EU to reach an agreement, adding “it really would be the last thing we want to do to break international law”.
Heald said he would be supporting Sir Bob Neill’s amendment.
If we come at the very end to the point where the negotiations have failed, all is lost, and this country really has to contemplate breaking international law, then so be it. But that day is not now, not today. And I think we should give the negotiations more time.
Neill added that he wanted to be able to support the bill but could not support it as it stands.
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.
Unless there are those changes, I would have further difficulty supporting the bill. But I do, having listened to what the prime minister has said, want to give the government that chance in a constructive spirit – and I know that [Michael Gove] is listening carefully to that.
But I do hope that the government recognises that to act in a way which unilaterally breaches our international obligations is wholly against the spirit of what this country stands for, is against the spirit I think of the party that he [Gove] and I have always adhered to as a party of the rule of law.
And we need to find a constructive means of making sure that we meet our obligations to the union, but not undermining our obligations to the rule of law either. I do not believe that is impossible with good will.
The Tory chairman of the justice select committee, Sir Bob Neill, said that at present he has “real concerns” with the bill and wants more assurances from the UK government that it will not breach international legal obligations unless “every one of those legal mechanisms open to us have been exhausted and until there has been a specific vote of this house”.
He told MPs:
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.
Not, I think, by a statutory instrument, which does not get enough scrutiny for such a constitutionally significant issue, but by a specific resolution.
That’s why my amendment seeks to give the government an opportunity to have that ‘break in the glass in case of an emergency provision’, but without us triggering a breach of the international legal obligations before it is absolutely necessary.
As we’ve reported earlier, the Tory former attorney general Jeremy Wright said he could not support the clauses of the bill relating to Northern Ireland but would not vote against the second reading because the vast majority of the bill is “good and sensible and necessary”.
He told the BBC PM programme:
I can’t support the clauses which relate to Northern Ireland. I think the government is mistaken to believe this is the right way to respond to what I understand is a challenging situation in the negotiations with the European Union.
This is far from just another day in parliament and I, along with many others, are profoundly disturbed by what’s going on here… It’s about our authority on the world stage and that matters not just in the UK, but also to the many people around the world who rely on countries like the UK, governments like the UK’s government, to speak up for them and to criticise those countries that are prepared to set aside international law when it suits them. Now if the UK is not in a position to make that case, then the world is a less safe place. That’s why this matters.
What you shouldn’t do is vote to give authority to the government to do something that would break the law. And I think parliament should not give ministers that authority, and if ministers were to use the authority that they are given, if they are given by parliament, I think we’ll all regret it. And that’s why I hope it won’t happen.
I think what’s likely is that second reading of this bill will pass and I will not vote against second reading of this bill because a large proportion of it is good and sensible and necessary. I don’t object to the vast majority of this bill, it’s three clauses in the bill that I think are pernicious and should be changed, I think the more interesting question will be what happens when we get to a detailed discussion of those particular clauses.
And in his speech Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, urged Tory MPs to vote down the bill tonight. He said:
This is a test for the house this evening, do not wait for the committee stage. Legally, morally, ethically, the right thing to do is to vote down this bill tonight and this house must be accountable.
Do not follow the prime minister in acquiescing in breaking the law because if you vote for second reading tonight, that’s exactly what you’re all doing. So this is a test and I understand the challenge that Conservative members face – don’t support the prime minister by breaking the law this evening, it is as simple as that.
That’s all from me for tonight. My colleague Lucy Campbell is now taking over.
Sir Bill Cash, the Tory Brexiter who chairs the European scrutiny committee, used his speech to argue that there were many instances of international law being over-ridden. He said:
On the question of international law, such law comes in all shapes and sizes. There are many instances of express overriding UK statute law.
The EU itself does sometimes break international law, including refusing certain compliance with WTO rules. EU retaliation by a blockade would be utterly unlawful.
‘What incompetence! What failure of governance!’ – Miliband on Johnson
And here is what was probably the most damning passage from Ed Miliband’s speech. He said:
And let’s just get this straight for a minute, because I think it is important to take a step back, what the prime minister is coming to the house to tell us today is that his flagship achievement, the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said, as I said, was oven ready, the deal which he fought and won the general election is now contradictory and ambiguous.
What incompetence. What failure of governance. And how dare he try and blame everyone else.
Can I say to the prime minister, this time he can’t blame [Theresa May], he can’t blame John Major, he can’t blame the judges, he can’t blame the civil servants, he can’t sack the cabinet secretary again.
There’s only one person responsible for it, and that is him. This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure.
Miliband said Johnson had to take responsibility.
For the first time in his life it is time to take responsibility, it is time to fess up.
Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it.
Because a competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with.
And if such a government somehow missed the point but woke up later it would have done what any competent business would do after it realised it can’t live with the terms of a contract, it would negotiate a way out in good faith.
And that’s why this is all so unnecessary – because there is a mechanism designed for exactly this purpose in the agreement, the joint committee on the Northern Ireland protocol.