Sketch: The UK Government vs international law
If you’re going to break international law, you should at least do it in an imaginative way. It should involve speed boats, or Colombians, or something. Not through something as dull as the Internal Market Bill.
That’s the first thing you need to know about breaking international law. The second - and this isn’t meant to read as a guide, by the way - is that you’re not meant to admit to it.
Yet here we are, because that’s exactly what the government has done, with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis taking to the Commons floor to concede the new Brexit legislation does exactly that. It’s just in the most boring way imaginable.
As Lewis explained, after having apparently been surprised by a basic question on the bill: “Yes. This does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
It would be tempting to call the UK a banana republic, except there’s a monarchy
Don’t tell them your name, Pike! It was an odd move, given pretty much all criminality involves breaking the law in a specific way. Criminals don’t usually get convicted of ‘all crimes’. We’re now at the stage that UK Government henchmen - sorry, ministers - can boast of their plots using actual speeches, like a Bond villain talking through their schemes.
Except it’s not that exciting. In fact it’s hard to escape the feeling we are now being governed by a gang of intensely dull pirates. At least the decision to cut policing budgets has started to make sense.
But sadly it doesn’t get any less confusing, because in the same week Lewis was confessing in the Commons, Kit Malthouse and Priti Patel were directing the public to inform the police if their neighbours were breaching lockdown rules. But what if they were breaching international law, guys? What should we do then? Apparently that doesn’t count, according to the new rules.
Basically: do breach international treaties at the exact moment you need to get other countries to trust you, but don’t let your neighbours see their grandkids without getting CID on the case.
It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with our role models, isn’t it? Not that it’s easy for them either. The most harrowing bit for Johnson will surely have been watching his oven ready microwavable Brexit plans being roasted by Ed Miliband. He just sat there, like a haunted scarecrow that had collapsed in on itself, looking vacantly, despairingly at the ceiling. Presumably this was the chaos with Ed Miliband we had been warned about.
But the good news is that there was reason for hope. Douglas Ross, after all, is leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and as an MP he is in the perfect position to confront Johnson.
As he told the BBC: “If I think he has got something wrong, or where I think the government has got something wrong, I’ll stand up and say that.
“I’ve shown people across Scotland that if I think the Prime Minister has got it wrong, I’ll tell him”.
Well, now’s your shot, Douglas! A golden opportunity! A unique window! A chance to show you can stand up to the PM if he gets something wrong.
He had been very clear, after all. So what would Ross do? Would it be a barnstorming speech? A resignation? Would he break the Scottish Tories off from the UK party in protest?
Ah, no. Not exactly. Or at all, actually. Your mistake was in thinking a senior Conservative politician would believe it is wrong to break the law.
It does seem an odd move for a referee, so you can see why he might want to distance himself. As he put it, back in August: “We have different policies, we had different policies at the last election and we will have a range of policies going forward.
“But I am the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and I’m the one that’s taking the fight to the SNP day in, day out and I’ll continue to do that for the next nine months until the election in May next year.”
So Ross will take the fight to the SNP, and Boris Johnson will take the fight to the Scottish Tories, by undermining them at every turn.
It would be tempting to call the UK a banana republic, except there’s a monarchy.
So no, Ross didn’t oppose the bill, instead choosing to point to the employment opportunities afforded by breaking the law. “Is it not telling tonight”, he asked, in the debate, “that in all the SNP speeches I’ve listened to jobs and businesses have not been mentioned once?”
Well yes, Douglas. There are often economic opportunities to be had in illegality. That’s actually one of the reasons criminals do it. And indeed, the decision to ignore the jobs angle may have been telling, but it really wasn’t that surprising. Most of the opposition chose to focus on the decision to act outside international convention.
And that really is the frustration here. You can’t become a pariah state, even only briefly and specifically, without everyone going on about it all the time.