Boris Johnson failed to win over rebel Tory MPs on Monday night with the promise of a retrospective vote on any move to amend the Brexit divorce deal.
The Prime Minister said new laws to override the EU Withdrawal Agreement would “never be invoked” if a trade agreement was reached with Brussels.
But a growing band of Tory rebels, who now include five former cabinet ministers and five other former ministers, said they would press ahead with plans to give Parliament the final say on whether Mr Johnson should have the power to break international law.
Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, argued that breaking international law was a “step that should never be taken lightly” and said it was not “clear” why the Government wanted to do so.
Mr Johnson opened the debate on the Internal Market Bill – legislation that would give him the power to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement – by insisting it was merely a “legal safety net” to protect the integrity of the UK if the EU refused to negotiate a trade deal in good faith.
In an attempt to reassure wavering Conservative MPs, he said the measures in the Bill to set aside parts of the Brexit deal were an “insurance policy” that would not be necessary if an agreement was reached with Brussels.
He accused the EU of going to “extreme and unreasonable lengths” over the Northern Ireland Protocol – contained within the Withdrawal Agreement – which he said could lead to “blockading food and agriculture transports within our own country”.
The protocol was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland closely aligned with EU customs rules.
Mr Johnson told MPs: “In recent months the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths using the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that goes well beyond common sense simply to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free-trade agreement.”
He warned that the EU could seek to act in other “absurd ways”, slapping tariffs on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and said that “if they fail to negotiate in good faith” the UK must introduce a “package of protective powers”.
Last week, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, admitted the new Bill would break the Withdrawal Agreement – and international law – in a “limited and specific” way.
Mr Javid said: “Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly. Having carefully studied the UK Internal Market Bill, it is not clear to me why it is necessary to do so.”
Monday night’s vote was to agree the Bill could move to its next stage in Parliament, with the real battle happening next week as MPs table amendments.
Veteran Conservative backbencher Sir Roger Gale said he voted against the Bill. Sir Roger told BBC2's Newsnight that he voted against the legislation as "a matter of principle".
Mr Johnson tried to reassure rebels that they would get a chance to vote on the use of the powers contained in the Bill, but Downing Street confirmed that any vote would only happen after the powers had been invoked, when MPs would have 40 days to debate and either approve or reject the move.
Sir Bob Neill, the Conservative MP behind the rebel amendment, said the Prime Minister’s promise of a vote did not provide “enough scrutiny for such a constitutionally significant issue”.
He indicated he would press ahead with an amendment that would give Parliament a veto before, not after, the Prime Minister amended the Withdrawal Agreement.
At least 50 rebels would be needed to defeat the Government, as Mr Johnson has an 80-seat majority and the DUP also said it would vote for the Bill.
Geoffrey Cox QC, who was Mr Johnson’s Attorney General when the Withdrawal Agreement was signed, said breaking international law would damage the UK’s standing. “The breaking of the law leads ultimately to very long-term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation and it is also a question of honour to me – we signed up, we knew what we were signing,” he told Times Radio.
In the Commons, Jeremy Wright QC, another former Attorney General, said the ministerial code “obliged ministers to comply with international as well as domestic law”. “This Bill will give ministers overt authority to break international law,” he said. “Has the position on the ministerial code changed?”
Mr Johnson told him “no, not in the least”, but referred to advice given by Suella Braverman, the current Attorney General.
Sir Charles Walker, deputy chairman of the 1922 Committee, said: “I do think being asked to put this country, this House, members of this House, our constituents on the wrong side of the law before we’ve exhausted all other options … surely we have to exhaust all other options before we press the nuclear button. And I’m not going to be voting for this at Second Reading, because if you keep whacking a dog don’t be surprised when it bites you back.”
Meanwhile, Rehman Chishti resigned as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief in opposition to the clauses in the Bill. He posted: “As an MP for 10 years and former barrister, values of respecting rule of law and honouring one’s word are dear to me.”
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said the Government’s position was likely to cause “reputational damage” on the world stage and called on Mr Johnson to “get on with” securing fresh trade terms with the EU.
With Sir Keir self-isolating after a member of his household developed Covid-19 symptoms, Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader and shadow business secretary, responded to Mr Johnson in the Commons, accusing him of “legislative hooliganism” and said he had ignored warnings over how the Northern Ireland Protocol works and the mediation measures in place.
He told the Commons: “What the Prime Minister is coming to the House to tell us today is that his flagship achievement, the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said, as I said, was oven-ready, the deal [on] which he fought and won the general election is now contradictory and ambiguous.
“What incompetence. What failure of governance. And how dare he try and blame everyone else.
“This time he can’t blame (Theresa May), he can’t blame John Major, 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 is him. This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure.”
Mr Miliband said Mr Johnson had to take responsibility for his actions in negotiating the Brexit deal. “Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it,” Mr Miliband said. “Because a competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with.”
All five living former prime ministers have voiced concern at the potential breach of international law, along with five former Tory leaders.
In The Telegraph, Lord Hague writes: “Whenever I spoke as foreign secretary about the upholding of laws and treaties, to the UN or any errant state, I did so with the utter confidence that my country stood on solid ground. We undermine that ground at our peril.”