Boris Johnson wins vote on breaching Brexit deal but rebellion smoulders

LONDON • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to renege on part of the Brexit divorce deal passed its first hurdle in Parliament late on Monday after a bruising debate in which senior members of his own party denounced the move.

The House of Commons passed the Internal Market Bill by 340 to 263 in its first main vote, allowing it to go through to the next stage in the parliamentary process today.

The prime minister said the proposed legislation, which will rewrite part of the Withdrawal Agreement, is "essential" to maintain Britain's economic and political integrity.

He accused the European Union of making "absurd" threats to stop food moving from mainland Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

"It is such an extraordinary threat," Mr Johnson told MPs. "It seems so incredible the EU could do this, that we are not taking powers in this Bill to neutralise that threat, but obviously reserve the right to do so if these threats persist."

His decision to rip up part of an international deal he signed less than a year ago has already pitched the Brexit negotiations into turmoil. The EU has threatened legal action and called on him to withdraw the Bill by the end of the month.

Pressing on would risk jeopardising efforts to secure a deal with the bloc before the Brexit transition period expires at the end of the year.

While Mr Johnson had a comfortable majority in Monday night's vote, he will face a bigger obstacle in the House of Lords, where Tory grandees including former leader Michael Howard have denounced the legislation and could delay its progress.

Lawmakers on both sides said the government's admission that the proposed legislation would breach international law will weaken Britain's attempts to call other countries - including Russia, China and Zimbabwe - to account.

"Britain has been a beacon in some very difficult places of the world for support for the rule of law, and our support is relied upon," said former Tory International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell. "We have a duty to uphold the rule of law."

Conservative former attorneys-general Geoffrey Cox and Jeremy Wright said they would not back a Bill that breaks international law, and were joined by former finance minister Sajid Javid.

Mr Rehman Chishti, Mr Johnson's special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, has quit, saying he could not vote for the plan.

"I understand how some people will feel unease over the use of these powers, and... I have absolutely no desire to use these measures," Mr Johnson said. "They are an insurance policy, and if we reach agreement with our European friends - which I still believe is possible - they will never be invoked."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2020, with the headline Boris Johnson wins vote on breaching Brexit deal but rebellion smoulders. Subscribe