rime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference at Downing Street on September 9, 2020 in London, England | WPA Pool photo by Stefan Rousseau/Getty Images
Boris Johnson’s contentious bill, which breaks international law, still faces further potential amendments.
Updated 9/15/20, 1:22 AM CET
LONDON — A controversial bill that would rewrite elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement passed its first parliamentary hurdle in the U.K. House of Commons Monday, despite a small Conservative rebellion.
Sections of the Internal Market Bill will override crucial aspects of the agreement with Brussels on Northern Ireland and state aid. Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis admitted last week that the proposals break international law. The government has justified the legislation as essential to ensuring unfettered trade between the four nations of the U.K. But the plans have also sparked outrage from the European Union.
A small group of big names in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party from previous governments, as well as rebellious new MPs and backbench misfits, refused to support the bill, citing concerns about breaking international law. Most in the group chose to abstain rather than risk the wrath of the prime minister’s administration, which had been reportedly considering sanctioning MPs who voted against the bill by removing their party whips, effectively expelling them from the party.
Former Chancellor Sajid Javid and ex-legal chief Geoffrey Cox were among those to say beforehand that they could not support the unamended legislation.
Regardless, the bill passed easily at second reading, with 340 votes for and 263 against. An attempt by the opposition Labour Party to reject the bill through an amendment was also easily defeated with a government majority of 136.
The bill now faces further amendment votes starting next week, with one proposed change to require that parliament approve any future decision not to apply the Northern Ireland protocol. Some of those who abstained Monday did so in the hope the government could be forced into backing this amendment.
Monday night’s vote followed a grueling five-hour debate on the Commons floor, opened by the prime minister.
Johnson defended the bill, saying it was necessary to backtrack on the Withdrawal Agreement as the EU had refused to take the “revolver off the table” in future relationship talks.
“In recent months, the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths … to exert leverage against the U.K. in our negotiations for a free-trade agreement,” Johnson told MPs.
He added that “the intention of this bill is clearly to stop any such use of the stick against this country.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband stood in for the party’s current head, Keir Starmer, to lead opposition questioning, beginning with a long speech lambasting the “incompetence” and “failure of governance.”
“I congratulate him on having, in just one short year, united his five predecessors,” Miliband said of Johnson, referring to the former prime ministers who have criticized the plans.
“Unfortunately, their point of agreement is that he is trashing the reputation of this country and trashing the reputation of his office … There is one rule for the British public and another rule for this government.”
Johnson left the chamber after Miliband’s speech, with many commentators pointing out that he had looked visibly uncomfortable throughout.
He did not stay to hear Tory MP Charles Walker warn Johnson that after a summer of discontent for the party’s backbenchers, “If you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised if it bites back.”