If Boris Johnson’s government proceeds with its stated intention to change part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement regarding arrangements in Northern Ireland, ministers will not only have to convince a hugely skeptical EU, but they will also have to push through a draft law by the House of Commons and the Lords.
Britain’s Internal Market Bill goes through second reading in the Commons on Monday. Johnson’s 80-seat majority is expected to guarantee its passage, although some Tory backbenchers have spoken out against the breach of international law it represents.
There are many more Tory MPs who don’t like the idea but are keeping quiet, partly, they say, in the hope that it’s all just a No 10 negotiating bluff, but also because they fear losing the party whip if they vote against the government, which is the Johnson method.
Things are different in the Lords. In a brief debate on the issue on Thursday, Michael Howard became the third former Conservative leader in two days to condemn the promised failure and warn of the consequences.
Lord Howard was even more blunt than Theresa May and John Major when he questioned Richard Keen, the Scottish Advocate General, who was speaking on behalf of the Government, about comments in the Commons by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who conceded on Tuesday that the new Brexit plans would breach international law in a “very specific and limited way”.
“Does my noble and learned friend simply not understand the damage done to our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law by these five words uttered by his fellow minister, elsewhere, on Tuesday, words that I do not ever thought I was hearing from a British minister, let alone a Conservative minister? Howard said.
“How can we blame Russia, China or Iran when their conduct falls short of internationally accepted standards, when we meet so little of our treaty obligations?
The Lords debate was brief, but no peers spoke out in favor of the government’s plans. It was requested by Charles Falconer, the shadow attorney general, who said the “Lewis mantra” would be used as an excuse by dictators around the world.
Later another senior Tory peer, former Chancellor Norman Lamont, predicted the Bill would not pass through the Lords in its current form.
“I think the government had an arguable case, but that case was destroyed when Brandon Lewis said the means the government was going to use to change the Northern Ireland protocol were against international law,” said Mr. he told the BBC. “It’s impossible to defend. I think the government is in a terrible mess and in a hole and I don’t think it’s easy to justify.
Under the long-established constitutional principle known as Salisbury Conventionpeers do not block or severely alter measures that were in a ruling party’s election manifesto.
Johnson and his ministers could certainly argue that implementing Brexit was not just an overt commitment, but a central one. However, the dissenting peers would point out that breaching international law was not one of them, and they could send the bill back to the Commons without several key clauses.
For all the sway Johnson and his lieutenants have on the Tories in the Commons, particularly the very pro-Brexit admission in 2019, some more seasoned MPs and peers will listen carefully to the views of Major, who said failure to comply of international law could leave the UK having ‘lost something beyond the price which may never be recovered’.
Responding to the EU’s pledge to break off talks if the UK proposals were not dropped, Michael Gove, the minister responsible for Brexit issues, said the bill’s introduction would be “an opportunity for the government to explain in detail why it is important that we have this legislation”.
It would take an impressive argument to change a lot of people’s minds.