Government minister quits in protest over PM's controversial Brexit bill

14 September 2020, 12:32 | Updated: 14 September 2020, 13:15

Conservative MP Rehman Chishti has quit over the bill
Conservative MP Rehman Chishti has quit over the bill. Picture: UK Parliament

By Ewan Somerville

A minister has resigned in protest over Boris Johnson’s controversial new Brexit bill. 

Conservative MP Rehman Chishti quit as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief on Monday morning amid mounting fury at the UK Internal Market Bill

Downing Street is facing an escalating revolt over the new Bill, being voted on in the Commons on Monday, which overrides parts of Britain’s Withdrawal Treaty with the EU

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has joined the chorus of criticism, saying he has “grave misgivings”, while Mr Johnson’s ex-attorney general Geoffrey Cox issued a humiliating blow to the Government by saying he would vote against the Bill because it risked “unconscionable” damage to the UK’s international standing. 

In a resignation letter, Mr Chishti told the PM he had “real concerns” about the Bill, adding: “During my 10 years in Parliament and before that as a Barrister, I have always acted in a manner which respects the rule of law.”

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He added: “I am only too sorry that our difference on this matter means that I cannot vote for the Bill in its current form, on a matter of principle, and thereby will not be able to continue to serve as your Special Envoy.”

Boris Johnson's official spokesman said he thanked Mr Chishti for his work but defended the terms of the draft legislation.

The Downing Street spokesman said: "The PM thanks him for his service and wishes him well for the future.

"But as I say, I think we have both clearly set out the reasons for the measures related to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Prime Minister believes it is critical that this legislation is passed."

Mr Johnson is attempting to push through the Internal Market Bill, which the Government has admitted would breach international law, as ministers insist it is a “safety net” if no trade deal is agreed with Brussels before the conclusion of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year.

Former leaders Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Theresa May have all strongly condemned the move. While Mr Cameron was more muted, his intervention piles further pressure on Mr Johnson to change tack. 

In a statement Mr Cameron, who led the Remain campaign in 2016, said: “Passing an Act of Parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate.

Sir Keir Starmer: Boris Johnson is 'all over the place' on Brexit

“It should be an absolute final resort. So, I do have misgivings about what’s being proposed.”

Mr Johnson’s former attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, also revolted over the plans, accusing the PM of undertaking “to observe treaty obligations with his fingers crossed behind his back”. 

“When the Queen’s minister gives his word, on her behalf, it should be axiomatic that he will keep it, even if the consequences are unpalatable,” he wrote in The Times. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Government’s position on the Internal Market Bill is damaging to the country and would cause “reputational damage”.

He told LBC: “Here we are on the world stage for the first time in many years on our own and what’s the first thing we do? We break a treaty.

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“It’s basic stuff – if you say to other nations we agree something and a few months later you say no we don’t, the chances are they aren’t going to trust you going forward.”

Outrage at the Bill has come from across the political spectrum and Sir John and Mr Blair united to urge MPs to reject the “shaming” legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.

Mr Johnson warned that Brussels could “carve up our country” without his new Bill, as he tried to quell the dozens of senior Tories and backbenchers planning on voting against the legislation. However, the Government’s parliamentary majority of 80 means it is likely to still be passed.