Boris Johnson’s UK Internal Market Bill was given initial clearance in the House of Commons, as 340 MPs voted to support it, while 263 opposed the legislation the British Prime Minister touts as a safeguard against the EU’s taking an “extreme and unreasonable” interpretation of provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is believed to be ready for a possible compromise with rebelliously-minded Conservative MPs, as a minister suggested that elements of the Brexit legislation that have served as a catalyst for the revolt within party ranks could be rewritten, reported The Telegraph.
The Prime Minister reportedly met with senior MPs ahead of the vote on the Internal Market Bill on 14 September to assure them that action would be taken to allay their concerns.
The Bill passed the House of Commons on Monday by a majority of 77 MPs, with 340 supporting and 263 opposing.
One of the rebels is Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Commons justice committee, who has been particularly vocal in opposing the proposed rollback of parts of the commitments that London originally signed up to with Brussels.
Neill tabled an amendment seeking to bar the Government from going ahead with the changes and thus breaching international law without Parliament’s support.
A growing number of Tories have threatened to side with the slew of senior members of Johnson’s Conservative Party who oppose the legislation.
However, Johnson’s reportedly “constructive talks” with them have given rise to speculations that the Government might be prepared for a climbdown from its current intransigent stance, writes the publication.
On Tuesday night, Tory rebels that participated in reported discussions with Johnson claimed he had privately acknowledged that the decision to admit breaking international law had been a bad one.
According to one source cited by The Telegraph:
“It’s early days, but it feels as if we are edging towards a compromise being reached.”
Nevertheless, a senior Government source was cited as saying that while Downing Street was “engaging” with MPs, the official position on the Bill remained unchanged.
In the event that Boris Johnson fails to meet the rebels halfway and negotiate a compromise, they reportedly claimed that up to 20 Conservatives who voted for the legislation on Monday could switch to supporting Sir Bob Neill’s amendment.
There have been a spate of signals that might indicate a softening of the UK Government’s stance on the issue of the controversial legislation.
After Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, warned MPs last week that a reinterpretation of the special Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland included in the Withdrawal Agreement would be in breach of international law in a “very specific and limited way”, on Tuesday UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was quoted as saying on Sky News:
“We are absolutely not going to do that.”
Lord Keen, the Scottish advocate general, was cited as conceding to peers that specific elements of the Bill that had sparked dissent were a “matter of drafting and can be addressed in due course if it is required to be addressed”.
Addressing concerns over the Bill representing a violation of international law, Lord Keen said the Northern Ireland Secretary had “answered the wrong question” when speaking to MPs, and “as a consequence the whole matter has been taken out of context”.
The comments were seen by some as a sign that the government could rewrite the controversial clauses on Northern Ireland to clarify that ministers would not resort to using the powers given to them unless they believed the EU to be in breach of Article 16.
A Whitehall source was cited as responding to speculations on the issue by stating that comments by [Brandon Lewis] “reflected the legal statement the Government published last week on the Withdrawal Agreement and the provisions in the UKIM Bill. Every single word of which was agreed by all three law officers.”
A Government spokesman added:
“… This position has not changed. This is about creating a legal safety net and taking the powers in reserve, whereby ministers can act to guarantee the integrity of the UK and protect the peace process.”
The Internal Market Bill, unveiled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month, triggered a row among British politicians and in the European Union, as, according to some, the legislation breaks international law by overriding crucial parts of the earlier-signed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, specifically – the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is aimed at avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.
The Internal Market Bill proposes to roll back some of the commitments on state aid and customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, and while it does not impose or bar trade restrictions, it would give British ministers the power to modify or “disapply” any new trade measures that might be put into place in January 2021.
Trade Talks Fuel Optimism
Amid the row over the Internal Market Bill, there have been signs of optimism regarding the possibility of a trade deal with Brussels.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to announce that the EU is still seeking to avoid a no-deal outcome after the UK’s transition period expires at the end of the year.
I look forward to my 1st State of the Union speech in the European Parliament tomorrow. I’ll set out my vision & priorities for the year ahead, after having listened carefully to @Europarl_EN. This is a key political moment in the democratic life of our Union #DemocracyDay #SOTEU pic.twitter.com/CwGDhZrUzb
— Ursula von der Leyen – Follow #SOTEU 16/09 (@vonderleyen) September 15, 2020
As she delivers the State of the Union address in the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, it is anticipated that the European official will underscore that while an agreement will be sought, it will not be at any price, warning the UK to abandon plans to amend the Withdrawal Agreement by passing the Internal Market Bill.