Writing About Brexit: the Internal Market bill

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 9th September 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

On Tuesday 8th September, there were two important resignations:

Jonathan Jones was until Tuesday the Treasury Solicitor, which is the head of the government legal profession, and also the Permanent Secretary of the Government Legal Department, which is the single largest provider of legal services to government: he quit.

And also: Rowena Collins Rice, director general at the Attorney General’s Office. She also quit today.

The Irish Border twitter account, which stopped tweeting on 31st January, today tweeted again:
“Ok, now I’m worried”

In my post of Sunday night, I explained why I think – if Boris Johnson / Dominic Cummings is not stopped – Northern Ireland will unify with the Republic of Ireland much sooner than it will be possible for Scotland to become independent – and the strong possibility that in 2021, British troops will be back on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement has held the peace since 1997. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would disrupt the agreement, which is an international treaty and also a part of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution. A hard border would also cause massive economic disruption to businesses and communities in Ireland. The EU – and the US, the two biggest economic and political powers in the world, have each made clear emphatically that the UK must preserve the Good Friday Agreement after Brexit.

Theresa May, backed up by Northern Irish MPs providing her with confidence-and-supply votes, was clear at least that a Brexit deal had both to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and prevent a hard border down the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain.

Boris Johnson, faced with a powerful Parliament that would not permit him to let the UK slide out of the EU in no-deal Brexit – which was what his backers had paid him to do – seized on the idea of an “oven-ready deal” and picked up a deal the EU had offered earlier – one which was acceptable to the EU, but which Theresa May and the DUP MPs rejected, which put the pain of customs checks and labelling on to firms based in England, Wales, and Scotland who were transferring their goods into Northern Ireland; the hard border down the Irish Sea which Theresa May had rejected.

Theresa May’s deal was rejected by three groups of MPs for three entirely different reasons.
The Brexiter Tories voted against it because they found the level of compromise with the EU unacceptable. They lost Theresa May the tiny majority she had got by giving the DUP’s constituencies in Northern Ireland a billion pounds.

The Opposition voted against it because that’s what the Opposition does. If Theresa May had been canny, she could have handed responsibility for developing a deal to a cross-party group of MPs and gained some votes at least from Labour MPs. Theresa May was clear about what she wanted out of Brexit: fewer foreigners allowed to live in the UK and no interference by foreign courts in kicking out foreigners. That’s what she wanted when she was Home Secretary, and, it seems clear, that’s what she wanted out of Brexit. That wasn’t a goal that Labour under Corbyn leadership could find acceptable, and rightly so.

Some of the Opposition voted against the deal because they were against Brexit completely, and wanted the UK to revoke Article 50. As a strategy, this very nearly worked, if not for the fanatic opposition to Jeremy Corbyn among so many “centrists” in Labour and the LibDems. (Ironic, since Corbyn was pretty clearly among the group of MPs who conceded Brexit might be OK if it were properly done.) But in any case, having failed to involve Opposition MPs with the development of the Brexit deal, Theresa May should have known there was no reason for those MPs to vote for it.

And because of this tangled mess of uncanny politics and divided loyalties, Theresa May faced a no-confidence vote on 12th December 2018, which she won, and then had to resign on 7th June 2019, after what would have been a record-breaking string of Parliamentary defeats if she had not been immediately followed by Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson was elected leader by the Tory MPs and members who believed he could win the next general election and get the UK out of the EU. He won an 80 MP majority, now reduced to 79 because he’s already had to sack one MP from the Parliamentary Conservative Party for being smarter than Chris Grayling, but still a bullet-proof majority.

If you have been reading my posts since last year, you already know all of that.
On Tuesday 8th September, Bob Neill, Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst since 2006, rose to ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brendan Lewis, in office since February 2020, a question.

The context of the question was Brendan Lewis’s defence of the as-yet unreleased clauses in the UK internal market Bill, to be published Wednesday 9th September, which are said to unilaterally modify the Withdrawal Agreement and to put the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy.

Jonathan Jones’ resignation suggested that what was being said about the Internal Market bill was absolutely correct: he was explicit that he had done so because he didn’t like those clauses in the Internal Market bill.

(Also, claiming it was for “personal reasons”, Simon Clarke, Tory MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland since 2017, quit as Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government on Tuesday. This may or may not be connected.)

Bob Neill asked:

“The Secretary of State has said that he and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable? Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into? Will he specifically answer the other point: was any ministerial direction given?”

Brandon Lewis answered:

“I would say to my hon. Friend that yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

And that was that. The debate didn’t quite end then. But it might as well have.

Listening to the full debate this evening (I worked today, so didn’t get to listen to it live) as Tory MP after Tory MP asked loyal “questions” supporting Brandon Lewis, it became clear to me that within the Conservative Parliamentary Party at least, Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings are pushing this move as a negotiating tactic with the EU – “Look, if you don’t give us everything we’ve asked for, we will break the Good Friday Agreement.”

Earlier in the debate, Theresa May rose to ask Brandon Lewis:

“The United Kingdom Government signed the withdrawal agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that withdrawal agreement into UK legislation. The Government are now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations in the agreements it signs?”

Brandon Lewis’s answer to May was a cluster of phrases which he repeated throughout the debate:
“We have worked with the EU in a spirit of good faith” he claimed, and further explained that businesses in Ireland had to have “certainty” for January, “confidence and certainty that we will deliver what we agreed” – in short, that far from being able to rely that the Withdrawal Agreement means what Boris Johnson signed up to, a transparent border in Ireland and a hard border down the Irish Sea, Brandon Lewis was admitting that the government intended to unilaterally modify the Withdrawal Agreement to change that – to allow free movement of goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland – which means the EU is faced with three unacceptable options:

  • to enforce a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent goods flowing from third countries into the EU without going through customs checks
  • to enforce a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU, for the same reason
  • to allow goods from third countries to flow into the EU without having to comply with EU standards or go through the required customs checks, via Northern Ireland and the transparant NI-ROI border

Or, fourth choice:

  • to support reunification of Northern Ireland with the Repulic of Ireland.

I saw this on Sunday when I heard about these proposed clauses in the Internal Market Bill.

But what Bob Neill and Theresa May were willing to say, and Simon Clarke may have resigned from the government over, is that this is disgraceful behaviour by the Tory government regardless of the consequences – I do not suppose for a minute that Neill, May, or Clarke care a bit for Northern Ireland. What they care for – Neill and May certainly – is that the UK remains a country which can sign international agreements with other nations and not have anyone doubt that the UK will keep those agreements.

We’ll see in PMQs at noon Wednesday how Boris Johnson reacts to questions about the Internal Market Bill. We’ll know on Wednesday what these proposed clauses are.

But we know now, this minute, what it would take to get rid of Boris Johnson: first of all 55 Conservative MPs willing to each of them sign a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson and deposit the letter with the chair of the 1922 committee – and second of all (since those letters of no confidence are confidential) for 183 Tory MPs to have the courage to vote against Boris Johnson in a vote of no confidence.

And until that happens – we are stuck with Boris Johnson. No matter what he does, or what he says.

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