I couldn’t listen to all of the debate – I was working yesterday, having decided to take off Wednesday and Thursday as usual – for PMQs (Keir Starmer will be absent: he is self-isolating as one of his household has shown symptoms of coronavirus) and because Wednesday is the second day of the committee of the whole House examining the bill.
But I listened to enough of the debate, including Boris Johnson’s opening statement presenting the bill (and Ed Miliband’s strong rebuttal – Starmer picked him to sub in, and I have to say, he was terrific) to see very definitely two things.
One, that this is not a balloon floated by Johnson to see if it would be popular: Johnson means to get the Internal Market bill made law, and likely meant to all along.
Two, that there will be no full-scale rebellion among Tory MPs. A journalist who livetweets Parliament said that it was oddly as if “the House was on mute” – I think many Tory MPs may really feel ashamed of what they are doing: but only 30 abstained and only 2 voted against. Boris Johnson’s 79-seat majority can deal with that scale of rebellion.
The breaking of international law is not something that can be done on a ‘limited basis’ you either break the law or you do not. Voting against this measure is a matter of principle not just for myself or this government, but for this Country. pic.twitter.com/ESmIqHiJ2u
— Sir Roger Gale MP (@SirRogerGale) September 10, 2020
Bob Neill was one of the 30 who abstained: I suspect he has been got at since he asked That Question of Brandon Lewis last week.
Julian Lewis voted for the Internal Market bill: he evidently hopes that obedience will win him back the Tory Whip before the next general election.
Keir Starmer’s sweeping amendment to the bill also lost by 136 votes with about 80 abstentions.
While it is true the bill still has to pass committee stage, and still has to get through the House of Lords, Boris Johnson evidently has the votes to do it. Apparently Tory MPs a bit doubtful about actually breaking the law have been promised that this is merely an intent and that any actual lawbreaking modifications will be brought back to the Commons for them to vote on. (And if Johnson does follow through on this promise, I have no doubt they will obey his directives on how to vote, but the Internal Market bill as it stands means he doesn’t have to.)
Boris Johnson – who sat, arms folded, looking like an aged schoolboy being told off by an outraged headmaster, through Ed Miliband’s speech against his bill, walked out while Ian Blackford was speaking.
Johnson is yet to walk out before the Leader of the Opposition stops speaking, but it’s quite evident he’d like to.
My assessment, then, is that the Internal Market Bill will go off to the House of Lords very much as it was written, and whatever amendments the Lords introduces to frustrate its intent, Johnson will find a way to ensure the bill is enacted into law without them.
The reason I think that this is what Johnson intended all along – or the Vote Leave triumvirate, Johnson, Gove, and Cummings – is this.
I was looking back through Johnson’s praise of his “oven-ready deal” last year, and Johnson was unstinting and undetailed in his praise of his “fantastic deal”. There is not a single quote where he mentions any provision in his Withdrawal Agreement – nothing at all you could actually pull-quote today and say “last year you specifically said this would be OK”.
Now you could read this as Johnson gormlessly not bothering to read his own deal, just having it put in front of him to sign with the assurance that the EU would accept it. Marina Hyde wrote a wonderfully funny article saying that we shouldn’t try to assume Johnson and Cummings are amazing conspirators and “Stupid rather than evil” is generally a safe assumption.
But in this instance, I think Johnson intended all along to do this – to get his deal passed and “get Brexit done” – get the UK out of the EU and past the risk that MPs would look at the details of his Withdrawal Agreement and demand further time or threaten to revoke Article 50: he had them pass his Withdrawal Agreement in one day of Parliamentary sitting, offering an extension only into the Christmas week.
Then he waited til after 30th June, at which point no extension of the Brexit transition period is possible. Then he went on holiday.
And only when Parliament was sitting again this month, did he pull out the Internal Market bill and profess astonishment and shock that the EU meant to make the UK abide by the Northern Ireland protocol which he had himself signed last December. Every single provision he railed against in his speech to Parliament yesterday afternoon, saying it was “bad faith” on the EU’s part and no British Prime Minister could accept such terms, were terms he had agreed to in December, and refused then to have MPs properly scrutinise, debate, and vote on them before Johnson as Prime Minister committed the UK to abide by them.
Yes, I concede: this may be Boris Johnson doing a Donald Trump, having ignored the briefings and explanations he got prior to December, because he wasn’t interested at all in the deal, only in the Brexit, and took for granted that as Prime Minister of the UK he would be able to order the EU to change anything he didn’t like later. That is genuinely a possibility: and I think for many Tory MPs who obediently voted with the government yesterday, it is quite likely what happened – they didn’t read the Withdrawal Agreement and they still think that the UK should be able to tell the EU what it wants.
But Boris Johnson got briefed on his deal. He may have ignored what they were telling him: he may have spent the entire time they were explaining the Northern Ireland protocol staring off into space and wondering when these boring people would stop talking to him about boring things, no one told him being Prime Minister wouldn’t be fun – but he certainly got briefed: both formally by the civil servants whose job it is to make sure the Prime Minister understands what he’s doing, and informally by Dominic Cummings.
I concede the possibility that Boris Johnson was just being so lazy that it looks like wilful stupidly and he genuinely didn’t know what he was signing in December and is genuinely shocked now.
But while it’s still a possibility, I think it’s more probable that he knew. That he and Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings had this timetable to get their No Deal Brexit settled all along, and even Covid-19 didn’t stop them going ahead with it.
This will mean trouble for Northern Ireland: trouble for Scotland and Wales too if we can’t get away: but bad and immediate trouble for Northern Ireland in January 2021. And for Boris Johnson, I think the violence and even civil war in Northern Ireland is just a side-effect: what he wants is what he wanted all along, No Deal Brexit.
If the Biden/Harris ticket wins in November, this determination to kill the Good Friday Agreement means the UK will never get a trade deal with the US: even if Trump wins, it’s doubtful that the Republicans will get a majority in the House of Representatives, and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, has also said she’ll oppose any trade deal unless the UK respects the Good Friday Agreement.
But if Trump/Pence wins, Trump has made clear he doesn’t care. And as we have found out since 2016, Russian interference in US elections is real: and it appears Russia is planning moves to ensure Trump wins again. Putin may succeed in that or not, of course: and Russia may succeed or not in interfering with elections to Congress. But if Trump wins, Boris Johnson has – if not an ally, since Trump is really only useful to himself – at least a head of government who shares his feelings about international law.
If you are a US citizen, I hope you’ll vote Biden/Harris. I can’t say I’m particularly keen on Biden, but I absolutely think we need Trump gone.