Boris Johnson makes rallying call for support amid Brexit bill row

11 September 2020, 20:13 | Updated: 11 September 2020, 23:49

Boris Johnson insisted the new bill was "necessary"
Boris Johnson insisted the new bill was "necessary". Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

Boris Johnson has appealed for Tory unity amid deadlock with the European Union over a Brexit free trade deal. 

In a crunch virtual meeting with around 250 Conservative backbenchers, the Prime Minister said the controversial legislation to override parts of the Withdrawal Bill is "necessary to stop a foreign power from breaking up our country”. 

He insisted “we must not go back to the miserable, squabbling days of last autumn”, as Tories break ranks over the Internal Market Bill, which Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted breaches international law in a “very specific and limited way”

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The PM stressed via Zoom before the powerful 1922 Committee that "we must support our negotiating position in Brussels", adding he was still hopeful for a Canada-style free trade agreement.  

As Tory MPs lined up on Friday to vote down the Bill, which rows back on various aspects of the PM’s original deal, Mr Johnson urged them to "understand his point of view".

Mr Johnson later doubled down on his defence, writing in the Daily Telegraph that the controversial is needed to end EU threats to install a "blockade" in the Irish Sea.

He argued it is "crucial for peace and for the Union itself" and said voting it down would reduce the chances of a trade deal with the EU.

The Prime Minister said: "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.

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"We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI.

"I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a Treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off; or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK."

He said "in the last few weeks" he learned his negotiators had discovered there "may be a serious misunderstanding about the terms" of the Withdrawal Agreement he signed in October.

Mr Johnson argued it was agreed during "torrid" days with the deadline for a deal fast approaching while "negotiating with one hand tied behind our back" because Parliament blocked a no-deal.

"If we fail to pass this Bill, or if we weaken its protections, then we will in fact reduce the chances of getting that Canada-style deal," he wrote.

"Let's remove this danger to the very fabric of the United Kingdom.

"Let's make the EU take their threats off the table. And let's get this Bill through, back up our negotiators, and protect our country."

It came as MEPs threatened to block any trade deal brokered between the EU and the UK if Mr Johnson breaches his Brexit deal.

A defiant statement from leaders in the European Parliament and its UK co-ordination group said the PM's tabled Bill is a "serious and unacceptable breach of international law" which puts at risk the trade negotiations.

"Should the UK authorities breach - or threaten to breach - the Withdrawal Agreement, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill in its current form or in any other way, the European Parliament will under no circumstances ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK," it continued.

Mr Johnson appeared not to have ended the disquiet within his party during the call, with senior backbencher Sir Bob Neill saying he was not reassured by the speech.

Sir Bob, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee and is tabling an amendment to the Bill which he says would impose a "parliamentary lock" on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, said he still contends it contains "objectionable" elements.

"I believe it is potentially a harmful act for this country, it would damage our reputation and I think it will make it harder to strike trade deals going forward," he told Channel 4 News.

Downing Street insisted a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU is still possible despite an increasingly bitter war of words with Brussels, which has threatened legal action.

Hopes of a trade deal with Brussels hang in the balance, with the House of Lords Constitution Committee warning on Friday that measures in the new bill could lead to the whole Withdrawal Agreement "unravelling" with "far-reaching consequences".

"Any breach of international law threatens to undermine confidence in future treaty commitments made by the UK Government, and increases the likelihood that the governments of other countries will breach their international law obligations," it said.

"Those practical consequences are of great significance. The proposed course of action also appears to be in tension with the constitutional principle of the rule of law."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said that Justice Secretary Robert Buckland would respond to the letter "in due course".

The European Commission has given the UK until the end of the month to drop legislation enabling ministers to override provisions in Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

Following a stormy meeting in London on Thursday, the commission warned the UK was putting trade talks at risk and said it would "not be shy" of taking legal action.

But the Prime Minister's official spokesman reiterated the Government's position that the provisional Bill remained "critical" to the preservation of the Northern Ireland peace process.

He said the UK would continue to strive for an agreement and called on the EU side to show greater "realism".

Amid the worsening atmosphere between London and Brussels, it emerged the EU had even raised the prospect that it could block exports of animal products from the UK once the current Brexit transition period comes to a close at the end of the year.

In a statement following the latest round of talks on Thursday, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there were "many uncertainties" about the UK's animal hygiene regime.

He stressed "more clarity" was needed if Britain was to receive the "third-country listing" entitling it to export animal products to the EU.

On the British side, there was surprise at the comments as the UK continues to apply EU standards, although it is understood the issue has been raised previously in the negotiations.

A Government spokesman said: "It would be very unusual for the EU to go down this route and deny the UK listing."