Government gives MPs vote on controversial Brexit bill in Tory rebel compromise

16 September 2020, 18:21 | Updated: 16 September 2020, 19:22

The PM made a partial climbdown over the controversial bill
The PM made a partial climbdown over the controversial bill. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The Government has agreed to a compromise with Tory rebels over the controversial UK Internal Market Bill giving MPs a vote before using powers which would break international law.

In a partial climbdown, the Government has agreed to table an amendment to the bill which will allow the House of Commons to vote before a minister can use the 'notwithstanding' powers in the Internal Market Bill.

The Bill was passed through Parliament by 340 votes to 263 - a majority of 77 - on Tuesday.

Read more: James O'Brien's instant reaction to the Brexit bill passing vote

Read more: Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband trade blows over controversial Brexit Bill

Earlier on Wednesday, the Government's top law officer for Scotland resigned amid reports he was unhappy about plans to override the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Lord Keen of Elie QC, the Advocate General, tendered his resignation to the Prime Minister on Wednesday morning.

He was reported to be deeply unhappy after ministers admitted the provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill would breach international law.

Around 30 Tory rebels were thought to be preparing to vote for an amendment on Tuesday which would have required a Commons vote before the provisions in the Bill relating to Northern Ireland could come into force.

Downing Street relented and announced in a joint statement with Conservative MPs Sir Bob Neill and Damian Green that it would seek to amend the Bill to require the Commons to vote before a minister can use the "notwithstanding" powers contained within it.

The statement said: "Following constructive talks over the last few days, the Government has agreed to table an amendment for Committee Stage.

"This amendment will require the House of Commons to vote for a motion before a minister can use the 'notwithstanding' powers contained in the U.K. Internal Market Bill.

"The Internal Market Bill was designed to give MPs and Peers a vote on the use of these powers via statutory instrument. But following talks, it is agreed that the Parliamentary procedure suggested by some colleagues provides a clearer, more explicit democratic mandate for the use of these powers, and also provides more legal certainty.

"The Government will table another amendment which sets clear limits on the scope and timeliness of judicial review into the exercise of these powers. This will provide people and businesses with the certainty that they need.

"We welcome the way the Parliamentary Party has come together on these issue. There is near-unanimous agreement that the Government must be able to use these powers as a final resort, that there must be legal certainty, and that no further amendments are required on these powers."

The Government has already seen the departure of the head of the Government Legal Department, Sir Jonathan Jones, who quit last week as the Bill was announced.

Labour's shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said: "This has been a week of chaos from the Government's own law officers, whose legal advice has been renounced by its own Government and the voice of the law officers has been muted, and their authority is completely shot.

"This has been a farce that shames the entire Government."

As he took to Commons on Monday, Mr Johnson said his new legislation would act as a “safety net” to prevent the EU blocking food exports from the British mainland to Northern Ireland.

He insisted it is "critical" to ensure goods flowing between Northern Ireland and Great Britain are uninterrupted.

Opposition had come from all sides of the political spectrum including from Conservative former prime ministers Theresa May, Sir John Major and Lord Howard.

Even before the debate began, former prime minister David Cameron expressed his "misgivings" and former chancellor Sajid Javid and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox said they could not support the overwriting of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The intervention by Mr Cameron - who said passing legislation which breaks international treaty obligations was "the very, very last thing you should contemplate" - means all five living former prime ministers have spoken out against the Bill.

In the Commons, Mr Johnson - who took the unusual step of opening the debate himself - said the "protective" measures were necessary because the EU was now trying to "leverage" the Northern Ireland protocol in the talks on a post-Brexit free trade deal.

He clashed with Ed Miliband during the debate, as the former Labour leader stood in for Sir Keir Starmer, who had to go into self-isolation after one of his household showed symptoms of Covid-19.

Mr Miliband gave an impassioned response to the prime minister potentially breaking international law.

He said: “If there is one thing we are known for around the world, it is the rule of law. The country of the Magna Carta, the country that is known for having the mother of all parliaments, the country that out of the darkness of the Second World War helped found the United Nations.

“Our global reputation for rule-making, not rule-breaking, is one of the reasons we are so respected around the world.”

Mr Miliband added: "There are two questions at the heart of this Bill and why we'll be opposing it tonight."First, how do we get an internal market after January 1 within the UK while upholding the devolution settlements which have been a vital part of our constitution now for two decades and are essential for our union?

"And secondly, is our country going to abide by the rule of law? A rules based international order for which we are famous around the world and have always stood up.

"These are not small questions, but go to the heart of who we are as a country and to the character of this government."

Reacting to Wednesday's announcement, Mr Miliband said: "This does not fix the problem of breaking the law, damaging our reputation around the world and damaging our future prosperity.

"We need a trade deal with Europe and that is what we were promised.

"Breaking our own word and the treaty the Prime Minister signed puts that at risk.

"On the basis of tonight's statement, this Bill still breaks international law, reopens the Brexit debate and Labour will continue to oppose it."