Former Conservative leader Michael Howard has said a compromise between Downing Street and backbench rebels is not enough to enable him to vote for the UK Internal Market Bill in the House of Lords.
Under the compromise, clauses in the Bill that breach international law by reneging on the Brexit withdrawal agreement cannot be triggered without a fresh vote in the House of Commons.
The government on Thursday said it would ask parliament for permission to trigger those clauses only if it believed the EU was engaged in “a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland protocol”.
Lord Howard, a leading Brexiteer who led the Conservatives from 2003 to 2005, said the changes did not go far enough. “The government is still asking Parliament to break international law,” he told the BBC.
“I don’t know what my colleagues will do, but as far as I’m concerned this is a matter of principle.”
In its statement on Thursday, the British government listed examples of actions by the EU that would constitute acting in bad faith. They include insisting that tariffs and related provision such as import VAT should be charged on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland “in ways that are not related to the real risk of goods entering the EU single market”; insisting on export declarations for Northern Ireland goods going to Great Britain; insisting that the EU’s state aid provisions should apply in Great Britain “in circumstances when there is no link or only a trivial one to commercial operations taking place in Northern Ireland”; and refusing to grant third country listing to UK agricultural goods for “manifestly unreasonable or poorly justified” reasons.
“HMG confirms that in parallel with the use of these provisions it would always activate appropriate formal dispute settlement mechanisms with the aim of finding a solution through this route,” the statement said.
The compromise should ensure that the Bill passes all its stages in the House of Commons with a big majority by the end of September. It then moves to the Lords where it can be amended and sent back to the Commons. If MPs reject the Lords’ amendments, the peers can try again, but it is unusual for this process – known as “ping-pong” – to continue once the Commons have rejected the Lords’ amendments twice.
In exceptional circumstances, the Lords can refuse to pass a Bill, but the Commons can then pass it under the Parliament Act in the next parliamentary session, usually the following year.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Thursday that his party would continue to oppose the Bill despite Downing Street’s concessions to Tory rebels. “The latest fudge by way of amendments doesn’t take the problem away, it just changes the problem,” he said.