Downing Street is facing a showdown with Conservative backbench rebels as criticism over its plans to break international law with a new controversial bill that could override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement grew louder on Sunday.
It is understood that opposition among the party is growing, with dozens of Tory MPs expected to support a key amendment to the internal market bill that would give parliament a crucial veto of any changes to the agreement.
MPs will have an opportunity to air their opposition during a second reading and debate of the bill on Monday, when it will also be put to a vote before passing to committee stage. A number of Tory MPs intend to abstain on Monday’s vote, with up to 30 expected to back the amendment tabled by Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice select committee, next week.
On Sunday night it emerged that Geoffrey Cox, Boris Johnson’s former attorney general, said he would vote against the internal market bill. He called the plan to break international law “unconscionable”.
A few hours earlier, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, confirmed that Labour would also vote against the bill in its current form.
Neill, who will be abstaining on Monday, told the Guardian: “I’ve had some very positive support from fellow Conservative MPs, significantly from both people who supported Brexit, as well as remainers. I’m confident that support is growing.”
His comments come as the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, said he would resign if the law was “broken in a way that I find unacceptable” but stressed that “we are not at that stage”. He told BBC One’s the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that the legislation was a “break the glass in emergency provision if we need it”.
Lord Thomas, the lord chief justice of England and Wales from 2013 to 2017, said he did not accept Buckland’s argument and in effect called on him to consider his position. Referencing the resignation of Jonathan Jones, the head of the government’s legal department, he told BBC Radio on Sunday: “Obviously Sir Jonathan felt that the situation was such that he felt he could not continue. I do not see the lord chancellor [Buckland] being in any different position.”
Former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair also criticised the threat to break international law over the weekend. In a joint article written for the Sunday Times, the pair urged MPs to reject the legislation, saying it imperiled the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.
Meanwhile, a new war of words broke out on Twitter between Downing Street’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, over the Northern Ireland protocol, under which it would continue to enforce EU customs and follow product standards rules to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Frost claimed the EU had made it clear there is no guarantee it will add Britain to its list of approved third countries for food imports. But Barnier said it needed details from the UK on its future health standards for food, plant and animal origin products for export, known as sanitary and phytosanitary standards.
Neill said his amendment would not reach parliament until the second week of debates but would “allow time for momentum to grow,” adding: “Ministers will be under pressure to explain what their opposition is to a parliamentary lock. The amendment doesn’t actually remove these clauses from the bill. Some people will say: ‘You ought to go further and take them out completely.’ But this is done in the spirit of compromise if the government really needs to use them in an emergency.
“What you can do is have the provision in the bill but you wouldn’t actually activate it until the House of Commons, on a minister’s motion, specifically authorised those clauses to come into effect by voting for it.”
In an extraordinary scene in the Commons last week, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, admitted that the proposed bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”. The bill, which would give ministers powers to “disapply” part of the deal signed by Johnson last year, has infuriated Brussels.
Writing for the Telegraph on Saturday, Johnson claimed that he had been anxious in recent weeks as negotiators believed there was a “serious misunderstanding” about the terms of the withdrawal agreement. He wrote: “We are now hearing that, unless we agree to the EU’s terms, the EU will use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea.” Johnson described the internal market bill as a “legal safety net”, to “protect the free flow of goods and services between NI and the rest of the UK”.
After its expected passage through its second reading on Monday, the bill will come before the committee stage on Tuesday and Wednesday but, because of scheduling, Neill’s amendment is unlikely to be voted on in parliament until the following week, when there will be another two days of debate.
The opposition is unlikely to overcome the government’s 80-seat majority but provides another headache for Downing Street amid growing discontent among Conservative MPs following a series of high-profile U-turns this year over Covid-19 policy decisions. Former Tory leaders Theresa May and Sir Michael Howard have spoken out against the new bill.
Neill said he hoped other parties might also support his amendment. Reeves said Labour “would need to look at the detail” of Neill’s amendment before deciding to back it, and that it would be tabling amendments of its own.
Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, and one of the Conservatives backing Neill’s amendment and abstaining on Monday’s vote, said: “This isn’t about a rebellion, this is about advancing the strategies to ensure we don’t lose sight of who we are and what we stand for and that is absolutely critical in these dangerous and changing times.
“Britain is one of the founding fathers of modern democracy and international law and at a time when the rules-based order is eroding, we should be seen to defend it rather than undermine it.”
The veteran Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale said that he would be both voting against the internal market bill and supporting Neill’s amendment. “As far as I’m concerned, there is an international agreement that we signed up to freely and willingly and which we must now honour. End of story,” he said.
Meanwhile, there were new calls from Brussels and EU capitals on Sunday for the internal market bill to be dropped. After a phone call with Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, the president of the European council, Charles Michel, tweeted: “Withdrawal agreement to be fully implemented, ensure peace and stability in Ireland and preserve the integrity of single market. Time for UK government to take its responsibilities. International credibility of UK signature at stake.”
France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said it would be inconceivable for London to adopt a bill that would partly contradict the agreement ratifying its divorce from the EU.