Westminster sketch: Commons bewildered as Brandon Lewis drops bombshell
Widespread shock as rule of law ‘beacon’ poised to breach Northern Ireland protocol
There were only a few dozen MPs in the Commons chamber and a handful of us in the press gallery when Brandon Lewis dropped his bombshell and at first, none of us were sure we had heard him right.
After a few seconds, a murmur went through the Opposition benches as Labour MPs, separated from one another by two metres on account of social distancing, looked at each other in bewilderment.
A sketch writer came over to check if the Northern Ireland secretary had actually said that a Bill to be published on Wednesday would break international law “in a very specific and limited way” by circumventing elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. He had.
Lewis later dismissed fears about the impact on Britain’s reputation, suggesting that “countries around the world will look at our wider position . . . on international law and the rule of law, for which we are a beacon around the world”.
Jonathan Jones, the government’s chief legal adviser, resigned in protest against the plans, becoming the sixth civil service permanent secretary to quit since the beginning of this year.
Lewis’s statement came as the latest round of talks on the future relationship between Britain and the EU began amid warnings from both sides that time was running out to reach a deal. Implementing the withdrawal agreement has always been a prerequisite for the EU to agree any free trade deal with Britain so there is little chance of an agreement unless Boris Johnson backs down.
Undermining the Northern Ireland protocol could also wreck Britain’s chances of getting a trade deal with the United States, with congressional Democrats and the party’s presidential nominee Joe Biden alert to any threat to the peace process.
A small number of Conservative MPs have expressed disquiet about their government’s willingness to break an international treaty but most have been either silent or supportive. With the DUP’s eight MPs likely to support the legislation, it would take 56 rebel Conservative MPs to block it.
Few at Westminster believe anywhere near that number will risk losing the party whip by voting against a Bill that their government has acknowledged to be in breach of international law. It is a measure of the transformation of the Conservative Party and how it has been captured by Johnson’s constitutional recklessness as surely as Republicans on Capitol Hill have been by Donald Trump’s.