The Tories must heed Margaret Thatcher's words before they shame us before the world

Threatening to break international law, abandoning free trade with Europe and seeking to use state aid makes a mockery of Maggie's legacy

Conservative rebels last night forced Boris Johnson into a climbdown, but it’s highly unlikely to appease principled opponents of the Internal Market Bill nor will it win over Brussels. After two days of private negotiations, the prime minister agreed to grant MPs a vote about when to invoke controversial powers in the UK internal market bill that would breach the EU withdrawal agreement.

The deal came hours after the resignation of Lord Keen, the UK government’s law officer for Scotland. In a cutting resignation letter Lord Keen said there was no ‘respectable argument’ for the proposed breaches of law in the bill. Jonathan Jones, the government’s top legal civil servant, had already quit his post over the internal market bill a week earlier.

The problem is that the prime minister, and even the rebels who forced a concession out of him, are treating this like an internal party issue with the EU as a bystander. Granting MPs a vote on whether or not to allow the government to break international law doesn’t resolve the issue. The problem is the Bill itself, article 4 and 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement will be breached when it passes.

Before we even begin our post-Brexit future as an independent nation, we will have proved ourselves an unreliable, hostile and untrustworthy partner that is willing to break the law to violate international agreements. Our reputation took further battering with Boris’s nationalistic rhetoric, accusing the EU trying to carve up the country and negotiating in bad faith. But it is our government that has negotiated in bad faith and it is our government that is debasing the UK before the eyes of the world.

What more evidence do we need than the fact that our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, launched a charm offensive to try and reassure US politicians about the latest developments during his trip to Washington. It failed miserably. It failed because the government doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The US acts as a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, will always come down on the side of Ireland (with which it has a far more special relationship) and can plainly see who is in the wrong.

Not long after Raab’s failed charm offensive and pitiful attempts to justify the government’s law breaking, the US politicians he’d been trying to win over expressed their position in no uncertain terms. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he trusted the UK to "get this right". US Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there was "no chance" of a UK-US trade deal getting through the US Congress if the UK violated international agreements and undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

And Mr Biden, who looks likely to become the President in November, tweeted:

By negotiating in bad faith, going back on our word and proposing to break international law this government is not just ruining relations with the EU and our European allies, it is damaging our reputation before the world. As I wrote on these pages last week, global Britain risks becoming a pariah before it even takes flight.

This is not a game. Nor is it just a domestic issue. Every potential future trading partner is witnessing this behaviour. Every ally we will need to support our agenda in every international organisation in which we will sit as an independent nation. Every one of foreign policy enemies will have the perfect rebuttal next time we attempt to take the moral high ground on any issue. This is serious.

In ordinary times when we had a more scrupulous leader and government, the resignations would come thick and fast and the rebellion would force a major U-turn. Now we an Attorney General in Suella Braverman complicit in this disgrace and a Lord Chancellor in Robert Buckland who said: "we have to act in the national interest when it comes to our internal market", whereas he would object to a breach of international law that is "egregious and unacceptable". This one, he says, is not. The Lord Chancellor, the Minister with primary responsibility for upholding the law, would now only object to a breach of international law that was both ‘unacceptable’ and ‘egregious’. The bar for what is legally acceptable has been raised higher, or lower depending on your perspective, and a dangerous precedent has been set.

It was interesting to hear Commission President Ursula von der Leyen involve Margaret Thatcher as she criticised the government's plans to backtrack on the Brexit withdrawal deal:

"Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future treaty on trade," von der Leyen said, quoting from a Thatcher speech in 1975.

“This was true then and this is true today,” von der Leyen added. “Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership."

Love or loathe the EU, oppose or support Brexit, it doesn’t matter she is right. Right on the principle of upholding the law, on trust and right that Margaret Thatcher who would absolutely oppose this. Sadly, referencing a Tory idol and formidably principled former prime minister is unlikely to be enough to make the Tory party see sense. This is no longer her the same party she led.

In intending to break international law, abandoning free trade with Europe, seeking to use state aid to pick industrial winners and leaving the single market she helped to create, the Conservative Party is dismantling the legacy of one of its greatest leaders. Thatcher would not support breaking the law, she would not support trade and customs barriers with out most important trading partners and she’d likely have some choice words for the shambolic leadership of the party she led to three election wins.

Sure, Thatcher stood up to Europe, but she had principles, she passionately stood up for them and she sought to uphold the UK’s global reputation. The Conservative Party should heed her words before it allows this government to shame us before the world.