Why I abstained on the Internal Market Bill

14th September 2020

Why I abstained on the Internal Market Bill

Whilst I support the legal clarification of the status of the Devolved nations in trade policy remaining a sovereign UK matter determined in London, I share the concern of many senior Conservatives (including Brexiteers like Geoffrey Cox, Michael Howard and Norman Lamont) that Ministers should not wilfully break the law.

I support the Prime Minister negotiating hard with the EU for a Trade Deal. But the incendiary ripping up of the Northern Ireland Protocol should only be an Emergency “Backstop” in the event of the EU failing to play fair. After the Prime Minister signalled he was prepared to accept our Amendment to that end, I abstained pending Government clarification of its plans.

Statement

Over the last few days I have given very detailed consideration to the Internal Market Bill. 

The Bill deals with two key issues:

  • Complications over the legal status of the Devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland 
  • The arrangements for post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland 

The Government’s intention of tidying up the legal status of the Devolved Administrations is a sensible one and I support it. UK trade policy should be set by the sovereign national Parliament and Government. Devolving trade policy would be a recipe for chaos. 

Changing the post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland is much more controversial because they were clearly negotiated and agreed by the PM last year, formed the basis of our General Election Manifesto and are highly sensitive in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and the preservation of peace and free trade in Northern Ireland. 

Whilst I support the Government in setting out for the EU what steps we envisage having to take in the event of them not negotiating in good faith and denying us a trade deal, that is very different from:

- ripping up the Agreement and Treaty we made and sought re-election on the basis of, when the negotiations are entering their key final phase, 

- unilaterally setting out an incendiary proposal which makes a hard Customs border across Ireland inevitable. 

To go back on the Manifesto Commitment to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and carefully negotiated Northern Ireland Protocol, would be a serious breach of our international obligations and our promise to the British people in the 2019 General Election. 

By ripping up our highest profile international Treaty I fear we will make a Trade Deal with the EU – and the USA  and other Treaties with other countries, less likely and seriously weaken our authority to enforce the international rules based system with countries like China (and the EU), as well as our authority and credibility in global negotiations. 

I fear it will undermine – not strengthen – the Union, the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the UK’s economic prospects, by making a Trade Deal less likely, inflaming Northern Ireland tensions and gifting our nationalist opponents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a cause celebre to attack “government from London”.

I fear it will also provoke a deepening of the old Brexit Civil War of last year, which the Prime Minister rightly promised on the steps of No10 last December to end when he pledged to “let the healing begin”. The resignation of highly respected Government legal advisers and haemorrhaging of top Civil Servants in an apparent “purge” of people who voted Remain is hugely alienating to the professional and business credibility of the UK and HMG, and I fear will be damaging to the Government's (and UK’s) ability to retain good people in key administrative posts. 

I also fear that having Ministers announce at the Despatch Box a willingness to break the law invites a damaging legal challenge and risks triggering another constitutional crisis and logjam in Parliament with the Lords, further eroding public trust in our democracy. 

As a Conservative I fear deeply that this will undermine our historic and hard earnt reputation as the natural party of Government which can be trusted to enforce the fundamental principles of our country’s liberal democratic constitution and commitment to the rule of law. 

For all these reasons I share the deep concern of four former Leaders of the Conservative Party, four former Prime Ministers and a number of high profile Leave campaigning Conservatives including Michael Howard and Geoffrey Cox at this proposal, and am deeply concerned that a Conservative Government is doing it. 

For all these reasons I cannot support the Bill as it currently stands. 

Unless Ministers change tack and amend, remove or time-lock the Northern Ireland Protocol measures, I intend to vote for the Bob Neill Amendment, and will not be able to vote for the Bill as worded. 

No Government should ever countenance willingly breaking international law unless as a last resort in the most serious of emergencies. We must stand by our treaty obligations. 

I take this position not because I am opposed to the Government’s programme but because I support it.  Our commitment to “get Brexit done” by implementing the Withdrawal Agreement Treaty was fundamental to our election victory. I support the Prime Minister and the Government on all of our other work to deliver Brexit and make it a moment of bold and inspiring national renewal. 

I oppose the sections of this Bill ripping up the Northern Ireland Protocol because I am a Conservative who believes in the Union and the core tradition of Conservative belief in the sovereignty of Parliament, the rule of law and the UK commitment to honour international Treaty obligations we sign. 

Damaging our credibility as a Party, Government and country committed to honouring our international Treaty obligations is too extreme and too high a price to pay simply to strength our hand in negotiations. 

I hope Ministers will find a way to commit only to introduce the measures proposed for post Brexit trade between Norther Ireland, Great Britain and Ireland only IF and WHEN the EU fails to negotiate in good faith in the negotiations for a new UK-EU trade deal.

I am working with No10, Ministers and the Whips office to try and encourage the Government to find a way to “time-lock” these measures to be used only as a backstop in the event of the EU acting in bad faith to prevent the negotiating of a UK / EU trade deal. 

 

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