Boris Johnson signals compromise with Tory rebels on Brexit Bill

Prime Minister holds 'constructive' talks with senior MPs and tells them he will act on their concerns

The Prime Minister leaves a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday
The Prime Minister leaves a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday Credit: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson has signalled a possible compromise with Tory rebels after a minister suggested that elements of the Brexit legislation that triggered a revolt could be rewritten. 

The Prime Minister met senior MPs shortly before a vote on the Internal Market Bill on Monday evening (see video below), during which he assured them that he would act on their concerns. 

Among them was Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Commons justice committee, who has tabled an amendment that seeks to bar the Government from breaching international law without Parliament’s support.

With more Conservatives threatening to join the 20-strong group who defied the whip to abstain on the legislation, Mr Johnson is said to have engaged in "constructive talks", raising hopes of a Government climbdown.

It comes amid growing optimism that, despite the fallout over the legislation, a trade deal with Brussels is still possible. On Wednesday, the president of the European Commission is expected to extend an olive branch to Mr Johnson by declaring that the EU still wants a trade deal with the UK

Ursula von der Leyen is expected to use her State of the Union address in the European Parliament in Brussels to insist that the bloc will do all it can to avoid a damaging no deal at the end of the year but not at any price. 

However, she is likely to reiterate her warning that Britain must drop plans to alter Withdrawal Agreement by passing the Internal Market Bill in the flagship speech.  

In a sign that the Government's approach is softening, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary (see video below), and Lord Keen, a justice minister, appeared  to row back on suggestions that the legislation would breach the UK's treaty obligations with the EU. 

While Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, last week told MPs that certain clauses relating to Northern Ireland could break international law in a "very specific and limited way", Ms Patel told Sky News on Tuesday: "We are absolutely not going to do that." 

Lord Keen, the Scottish advocate general, went further, signalling to peers that the wording of some parts of the Bill could be tweaked and adding that complaints over controversial elements were a "matter of drafting and can be addressed in due course if it is required to be addressed".

Separately, it emerged that junior civil servants working on Brexit policy that they fear might break the law have been told to inform their managers. The BBC reported that email advice sent by senior mandarins at one Whitehall department advised staff to raise their concerns with their superiors.

It comes as senior US politicians warned Mr Johnson that Washington will not support any free trade pact with the UK if Britain fails to uphold its commitments to Northern Ireland. Four US congressmen, led by chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, have written to Mr Johnson telling him to respect an open border and peace process with Northern Ireland.

They wrote: "Many in the United States and in Congress consider the issues of the Good Friday Agreement and a potential US-UK Free Trade Agreement inextricably linked.

"With the issues raised in this letter in mind, we therefore urge you to abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement and look to ensure that Brexit negotiations do not undermine the decades of progress to bring peace to Northern Ireland and future options for the bilateral relationship between our two countries."

On Tuesday night, Tory rebels involved in the discussions with Mr Johnson claimed he had privately conceded the decision to admit breaking international law had been a bad one. One told The Telegraph: "It's early days, but it feels as if we are edging towards a compromise being reached."

A senior Government source said they were "engaging" with MPs, but insisted that the official position on the Bill remained unchanged.

Should Mr Johnson refuse to compromise, the rebels claimed that up to 20 Conservatives who voted with the Government on Monday could consider supporting Sir Bob's amendment

Addressing concerns over the Bill, Lord Keen, one of the Government's law officers, insisted he did not believe it to be in breach of international law.

He claimed the Northern Ireland Secretary had "answered the wrong question" when speaking to MPs (see video below), and "as a consequence the whole matter has been taken out of context". 

Lord Keen added that, under Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol – designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland – the Government would be entitled to take the actions set out in the Bill if it believed the European Union had acted in bad faith. 

However, he added that complaints over the provisions of the Bill being "widely drawn" were a "matter of drafting" that could be rectified later if necessary. 

His comments suggest the Government could rework the controversial clauses on Northern Ireland to make clear that ministers would not use the powers given to them unless they believed the EU to be in breach of Article 16. 

Hitting back on Tuesday night, a Whitehall source said of Lord Keen's remarks: "The comments by [Brandon Lewis] reflected the legal statement the Government published last week on the Withdrawal Agreement and the provisions in the UKIM Bill. Every single word of which was agreed by all three law officers."

A Government spokesman added: "Last week the Attorney General wrote to Select Committee chairs to set out the Government's legal position on the Withdrawal Agreement and the provisions in the UKIM Bill. 

"This position has not changed. This is about creating a legal safety net and taking the powers in reserve whereby ministers can act to guarantee the integrity of the UK and protect the peace process."