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by Kate Proctor and Jenni Davidson
15 September 2020
Boris Johnson's controversial UK Internal Market Bill clears its first parliamentary hurdle

Boris Johnson - Image credit: PA

Boris Johnson's controversial UK Internal Market Bill clears its first parliamentary hurdle

Boris Johnson's controversial UK Internal Market Bill has cleared its second reading vote in the House of Commons.

The bill changes parts of the Brexit deal, which will see the UK break international law.

Concerns have also been raised that the bill undermines devolution by giving the UK Government control over some areas that are currently devolved.

Before the second reading, the Prime Minister appeared in the chamber to claim the EU was keeping the “revolver on the table” in trade negotiations.

Johnson made the claim as he and former Labour leader Ed Miliband traded blows in the Commons ahead of the crunch vote on the UK internal market bill, which the government won late in the evening by 340 to 263.

More than a dozen Tory MPs, including former chancellor Sajid Javid, had been set to abstain on the vote, significantly denting Johnson’s 80 seat majority for the first time since the 2019 general election.  

Johnson appeared in the Commons to ask MPs to vote for the bill, which would allow him to overrule parts of the withdrawal agreement.

This would give the UK the right to unilaterally interpret key trade arrangements between Britain and Northern Ireland and make judgements on state aid.

He claimed the EU was going to “unreasonable and extreme” lengths to have future control over the UK in terms of trade, which may include blockading food by failing to list UK food and agricultural products for sale in the EU.

Johnson said: “As we debate this matter the EU has not taken that particular revolver off the table. And I hope they will do so and that we can reach a Canada-style free trade agreement as well.

"Indeed, it is such an extraordinary threat and it seems so incredible the EU can do this, that we are not taking powers in this bill to neutralise that threat, but obviously reserve the right to do so if these threats persist.

“I’m afraid these threats reveal the spirit in which some of our friends are currently minded to conduct these negotiations.”

All five living former British prime ministers have expressed concerns over Johnson threatening to break international law to disapply parts of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who is now shadow business secretary, responded on behalf of Labour with a fiery line-by-line attack on Johnson’s justification for breaking the law.  

He said his talk of EU food blockades was ridiculous, that they were negotiating with a “blunderbuss” approach and his “bill gets Brexit undone".

“I don’t like the ramping up of the rhetoric from the European Union. Even by the standards of this prime minister, this is as ridiculous an argument I've ever heard,” he said.

Miliband said the bill was not even about food transport from Britain to Northern Ireland, only exit declarations and state aid. 

He called the UK Government incompetent and added that the prime minister had to take responsibility for the deal that he signed last autumn, saying: “He can’t blame the judges, he can't blame the civil servants, he can’t sack the cabinet secretary again, there's only one person responsible for it and that's him. This is his deal, his mess, his failure.

“For the first time in his life it’s time to take responsibility. It’s time to fess up. Either he wasn't straight with the country in the first place or he didn't understand it.”

He said the UK Government had no need to override the withdrawal agreement because it included a body designed to resolve issues such as goods at risk of going into the EU, the joint committee on the Northern Ireland protocol.

As well as breaking international law, concerns have also been raised that the internal market bill will give the UK Government power over areas that are currently devolved.

Speaking ahead of last night’s Commons vote and an appearance before the House of Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union today, Scotland’s constitution secretary, Mike Russell, suggested the main purpose of the bill was to “break devolution”.

He said “The UK Government has admitted its willingness to break international law, but it appears the main purpose of this bill is to break devolution.

“It represents the biggest threat to the Scottish Parliament since it was established – and I will make it very clear to the House of Commons committee that MPs should vote it down.

“It is a power grab from the Scottish Parliament that puts the Scottish environment and economy at risk.

“It will enable the UK Government to impose lower standards on Scotland – for example in food standards and environmental protections – as it seeks to achieve trade deals with countries outside the EU. 

“The Scottish Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to reject these proposals and it is high time the wishes of the people of Scotland and their national parliament were respected.”

The SNP has described the Scottish Conservatives as “spineless” after Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and the other five Conservative MPs representing Scottish constituencies backed the bill.

SNP Westminster deputy leader Kirsten Oswald MP said: "By voting for Boris Johnson's naked power grab on the Scottish Parliament, Douglas Ross is demonstrating yet again that the Scottish Tories are utterly spineless and incapable of acting in Scotland's interests.

"The Tories have completely isolated themselves at Holyrood as the only party unwilling to stand up against this dangerous and undemocratic attack on devolution – proving they will rubber-stamp any decision from Westminster no matter how damaging.

"Scotland has been completely ignored by Westminster throughout the Brexit process.

“It is clearer than ever that the only way to protect Scotland's parliament and our place in Europe is to become an independent country."

But Ross said: “The UK Internal Market Bill is essential to protect the 545,000 jobs in Scotland that rely on UK trade, and ensure the unrestricted movement of goods across this country. 

“That’s why I will vote in favour of it on Monday evening, allowing the bill to progress to committee stage where over the next two weeks, MPs will be able to debate and vote on a range of amendments.

“Putting half a million jobs at risk in the middle of a pandemic is not an option, so I am voting for the bill at this stage to make sure that safety net for Scottish jobs is there.”

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