Brexit: who is saying what about the Internal Market Bill

Additional reporting from Reuters and Press Association

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to defend the controversial Internal Market Bill, which is currently behind debated in the House of Commons, after members of his own party voiced their disapproval of the bill.

The Internal Market Bill is a piece of legislation Mr Johnson is attempting to pass through the UK Houses of Parliament to ensure goods can continue to move freely throughout the United Kingdom.

However, the legislation clashes with key aspects of the UK's Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, a major point of which is ensuring no hard-border would exist on the island of Ireland.

Politicians from the EU and UK have voiced their concerns that the UK's proposed legislation would constitute a breach of international law, seeing as it would seek to nullify aspects of an international treaty.

Conservative Party

Speaking in the Commons this evening, Mr Johnson said that the bill was needed because the European Union had not taken a "revolver off the table" in trade talks.

Mr Johnson accused the EU of threatening to use the withdrawal treaty agreed in January to put up trade barriers between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, and even to impose a food blockade.

He said the bill would stop the EU using part of the Brexit divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland as leverage by threatening to block exports from elsewhere in the UK to the province.

"The intention of this bill is clearly to stop any such use of the stick against this country," he said. "That's what it does. It's a protection, it's a safety net, it's an insurance policy and it's a very sensible measure."

Despite his assertions as to the benefits of the bill, Mr Johnson is facing a growing rebellion from lawmakers in his own Conservative Party.

All of Britain's living former prime ministers have expressed concern about his plan.

His previous finance minister, Sajid Javid, said he could not support the bill unless it was amended.

"Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly," Mr Javid said in statement. "Having carefully studied the UK Internal Market Bill it is not clear to me why it is necessary to do so."

Conservative lawmaker Rehman Chishti, who was Mr Johnson's special envoy for freedom of religion, quit his role over the issue while Mr Johnson's former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was also critical.

"No British minister should solemnly undertake to observe treaty obligations with his fingers crossed behind his back," Mr Cox said in The Times newspaper.

Westminster opposition parties

Mr Johnson's opposition in Westminster accused the Prime Minister of trashing the country's reputation by putting forward the bill.

The Labour Party's policy chief on business, Ed Miliband said: "I never thought respecting international law would in my lifetime be a matter of disagreement [in parliament].

"I could never have imagined [Mr Johnson] coming along and saying 'we are going to legislate to break international law on an agreement we signed less than a year ago'."

Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister had united his five living predecessors as British prime minister, both Labour and Conservative, in opposition to his law-breaking bill.

"He is trashing the reputation of this country and he is trashing the reputation of his office," said Mr Miliband.

The Scottish National Party, backed by the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP also want to stop the bill, saying it breaches international law and the devolution settlement in the UK.

A separate SDLP motion says the bill should be stopped because it is an outright violation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Pete Wishart, SNP chairman of the Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee, told MPs: “Never before has there been such a sustained attack on our Parliament or our democracy.

“The invention and development of the idea of a UK single market has been one of the most spectacular, dishonest pieces of political chicanery we have ever witnessed in recent times.

“The bare-faced nonsense of this being a power surge is contradicted by practically every detail of this Bill.”

He said clause 46 of the Bill allows the UK Government to “legislate directly in devolved responsibilities,” adding: “It’s a mechanism designed to bypass the Scottish government.”

However, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross denied the Bill was a power grab.

Northern Ireland

In the North, First Minister Arlene Foster has criticised the EU, saying they were using Northern Ireland as a "plaything" in negotiations.

Speaking about the issue in the Assembly, Mrs Foster said: “The EU needs to stop using Northern Ireland to get their own way.

“We are not the plaything of the European Union and it causes great difficulties here in Northern Ireland when people use Northern Ireland in that fashion.”

She said her hope is the contention around the protocol can be removed with the striking of a comprehensive zero-tariff free trade agreement between the UK and EU, adding that she was amazed that the UK/EU Joint Committee had not yet found a way agree on issues such as state aid and at-risk goods.

Sinn Féin have spoken out against the proposed bill, with MP for South Down Chris Hazzard saying the UK government's Brexit plans were "a direct attack on the Good Friday Agreement and devolution".

Republic of Ireland

In the south, the Internal Market Bill has been met with criticism and disbelief.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he still believes the UK's latest approach to Brexit is a negotiating tactic.

"I think that most likely this is a negotiating strategy to try to create a lot of tension, to create some straw men that they can knock over in these negotiations as they draw to a close," he said.

He added: "That I think is the most optimistic reading of this."

This evening, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar made comments in a similar vain, saying it would be a shame to see the UK become a country that does not uphold international agreements.

"I do hope it's a negotiating tactic, because then we could continue to negotiate and come to the free trade agreement that all sides say they want.

"If it's not a negotiating tactic, it means that Britain has become a very different country, that Britain has become one of those few countries in Europe that doesn't honour treaties and doesn't respect international law.

"It would be a really great shame for a country like the United Kingdom to become a shadow of its former self."

Europe

Chief negotiate for the EU, Michel Barnier tweeted that the Withdrawal Agreement is not a threat to the "integrity of the UK", adding that "sticking to the facts is essential", saying the EU was not refusing to list the UK as a third country in regards the movement of food.

Last week, President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that she was concerned about the UK's intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement, adding that it would also "break international law and undermine trust."