Boris Johnson's plan to break international law by reneging on the Brexit withdrawal agreement has survived a backbench rebellion to pass its first stage in Parliament. The UK Internal Market Bill, which gives British ministers the power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, passed its second reading by 340 votes to 263.
The government will face a bigger test next week when Bob Neill, the Conservative chairman of the justice committee, is expected to table an amendment giving MPs the power to block the measures that contravene the Northern Ireland protocol. And a number of senior Conservative peers have made clear that they will oppose the legislation in the House of Lords.
The prime minister said the European Union had threatened to go to "extreme and unreasonable lengths" to use the protocol as a means to exert leverage against Britain in negotiations on their future relationship.
“The other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agricultural transports within our own country,” he said.
“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. I still hope that they will do so. And that we can reach a Canada-style free trade agreement as well.”
Mr Johnson admitted that the bill does not include any measures to protect Britain from such a blockade if the EU sought to impose one. Former Labour leader and shadow business secretary Ed Miliband accused the prime minister of trashing the reputation of this country and the reputation of his office.
“What he’s telling us is that his flagship achievement, the deal the prime minister told us was a triumph, the deal he said was oven-ready, the deal on which he fought and won a general election, now he says far from being oven-ready it is completely half baked,” he said.
“Or in the words of no 10 it is ‘contradictory and ambiguous’. What incompetence. What failure of governance.”
The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson welcomed the bill but SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance's Stephen Farry spoke against it.
“The majority of the people in Northern Ireland voted to Remain. They also supported the wrongly maligned backstop and they now pragmatically recognise the need for the protocol despite its challenges. And to be very clear, the majority of the people and businesses in Northern Ireland do not want this government breaking international law on their behalf,” Mr Farry said.