Boris Johnson moves to quell Tory rebellion over controversial Bill

Sajid Javid and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox join senior Tories opposing Bill

Boris Johnson attempted to quell a burgeoning Conservative backbench rebellion on Monday, telling MPs his plan to break international law was necessary to prevent the European Union from redrawing the borders of the United Kingdom.

Opening a debate on the UK Internal Market Bill, the prime minister said he hoped he would never have to use the powers it gives UK ministers to overturn parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

"They are threatening to carve tariff borders across our own country, divide our own land, change the very economic geography of the UK and egregiously ride roughshod over their own commitment under article 4 of the protocol, whereby, and I quote: 'Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom'," he said.

“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.”


Former chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox said on Monday they could not support the Bill, joining a number of senior Conservative MPs pledged to oppose it. All of the UK's living former prime ministers have criticised the legislation, one of two Bills that would breach the withdrawal agreement by giving UK ministers the power to decide unilaterally how parts of the Northern Ireland protocol should be implemented.

They could determine which goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland are deemed at risk of proceeding into the EU’s single market and what documentation must accompany goods moving in the opposite direction. The UK would also be able to unilaterally limit the scope and reach of the protocol’s measures governing state aid to business.

Reputational damage

Bob Neill, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons justice committee, called on the government to amend the Bill to give MPs a vote on whether to trigger the clauses that breach the withdrawal agreement.

“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,” he said.

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said the government was starting to realise that his party's warning's about the withdrawal agreement last year were well founded. And he dismissed criticism that the Bill breached international law and threatened the Belfast Agreement by ripping up the Northern Ireland protocol.

“For the life of me, I do not understand why a decision that will enable businesses in Northern Ireland to bring goods from [Britain] without paying unnecessary taxes, which they then have to claim back at some future time, is going to affect peace in Northern Ireland. The argument about the Good Friday Agreement and violence in Northern Ireland is always rolled out when the arguments are weak against what the government are doing,” he said.

But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Belfast Agreement was based on the principles that there would be no hard border in Ireland and that local people would make local decisions for their communities.

“This Bill rips up both of those principles,” he said. “And it’s not just about trade, it’s much more fundamental than that. We are not going backwards despite what this government or anyone else in this house tries to drag us back. We are refusing to a place that caused so much hurt and so much pain.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times