Ex-attorney general Geoffrey Cox leads Tory rebellion against PM's Brexit Bill

13 September 2020, 23:23 | Updated: 13 September 2020, 23:55

Geoffrey Cox struck out at the "unconsciable" plan to override the Withdrawal Agreement
Geoffrey Cox struck out at the "unconsciable" plan to override the Withdrawal Agreement. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox has said it would be "unconscionable" for the government to override the Brexit divorce deal.

The Torridge and West Devon MP, who previously served under Prime Minister Boris Johnson in government, is leading the way in the Conservative rebellion against their leader.

He said there is "no doubt" the "unpalatable" implications of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) would have been known to Mr Johnson when he signed it, a time when Mr Cox was the chief law officer.

The Tory MP said he would not support the UK Internal Market Bill unless the government rules out the possibility of "permanently and unilaterally" rewriting an international agreement that could break the law.

Mr Cox's comments came ahead of the legislation being debated in the Commons on Monday when the Bill is set to return to the chamber amid growing criticism that breaching international law would jeopardise the UK's standing in the world.

The QC, who was attorney general when Mr Johnson's government unlawfully suspended Parliament, said tariffs and customs procedures on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain were part of the deal.

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"There can be no doubt that these were the known, unpalatable but inescapable, implications of the agreement," he wrote in The Times.

He said if the powers in the legislation were used to "nullify those perfectly plain and foreseeable consequences" then it would amount to the "unilateral abrogation of the treaty obligations" signed in October.

"It is unconscionable that this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way," he said.

The former attorney general urged ministers to use the "clear and lawful" options under the agreement to remedy their concerns that food imports may be blocked from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Or, "in extremis", he said, they could take "temporary and proportionate measures" during an independent arbitration process.

"What ministers should not do, however provoked or frustrated they may feel about an impasse in negotiations, is to take or use powers permanently and unilaterally to rewrite portions of an international agreement into which this country freely entered just a few months ago," he said.

Earlier on Sunday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer gave fresh hope to the prime minister's Bill sailing through Parliament, saying he will support the legislation if "substantial concerns" are addressed.

Sir Keir said his party would "play its part" in supporting the UK Internal Market Bill if the prime minister is willing to "fix" a number of cross-party concerns.

Starmer - who will be on LBC from 9am on Monday for Call Keir with Nick Ferrari - still believes a free trade deal can be struck with the European Union if both parties "hunker down in good faith and break the logjam".

However, he also accused Mr Johnson of having "turned the clock back" and of "reigniting old rows" by tabling the legislation that would override parts of his own Withdrawal Agreement.

Also on Sunday, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said he will resign if the government breaks international law in an "unacceptable" way with the proposed legislation.

However, the minister insisted he does not believe the UK will "get to that stage" and added that the controversial legislation that could break international law was a "break-the-glass-in-emergency provision if we need it".

"If I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable then, of course, I will go," he told The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC.

"I don't believe we're going to get to that stage. I know in my mind what I have to do. But the government collectively here also has a responsibility, we've got to resolve any conflict that's what we will do."

However, the chances of negotiating a successful free trade deal is hanging in the balance, with Downing Street's chief negotiator Lord Frost heading to Brussels for informal talks this week.

Mr Johnson warned that the EU could "carve up our country" without his new Bill, as he stepped up his rhetoric as senior Tories prepared to rebel against the legislation.

But outrage at the legislation has come from across the political spectrum, including from Lord Howard and Conservative former prime ministers Theresa May and Sir John Major.

Sir John and fellow former PM Tony Blair united to urge MPs to reject the "shaming" legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK's integrity.

"It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal - crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation," they wrote in the Sunday Times.

Despite Mr Johnson's attempts to drum up support, Tory rebels suggested their numbers were growing and opinions were only hardened by the prime minister's increased rhetoric.

The PM, with a large Commons majority, should win an expected vote of the legislation's principles during its second reading on Monday.

But a rebellion could come later with Commons justice committee chairman Sir Bob Neill's amendment, which he said would impose a "parliamentary lock" on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Labour minister Rachel Reeves said the party would "need to look at the detail" of Sir Bob's amendment and said Labour MPs will table amendments of their own.

She told the Marr show that Labour will vote against the government's Bill if it still contains clauses overriding the WA.