Boris Johnson defended his controversial plan to allow ministers to tear up the Brexit divorce deal by suggesting the European Union was being unreasonable and failing to negotiate in good faith.
The Prime Minister insisted the legislation, which would put the UK in breach of international law by breaking the terms of the treaty signed with Brussels, was a necessary “legal safety net” to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As he sought to quell a growing Tory revolt over the measures, he claimed that passing the legislation would strengthen the hand of negotiators trying to strike a trade deal with the EU.
In an effort to reassure Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson said the measures contained in the Bill to set aside parts of the Brexit deal were an “insurance policy” that he hoped would “never be invoked” if an agreement was reached with Brussels.
And he promised that if it was necessary for the powers to be used, MPs would be given a vote on the regulations.
The Internal Market Bill sets out the way that trade within the UK will work once outside the EU’s single market and customs union.
All the living former prime ministers have voiced concern over the potential breach of international law, while ex-attorney general Geoffrey Cox and former chancellor Sajid Javid have added to high-profile Conservative criticism of the measure.
Mr Johnson, taking the unusual step of opening the debate on the legislation in the Commons, accused the EU of going to “extreme and unreasonable lengths” over the Northern Ireland Protocol which he said could lead to “blockading food and agriculture transports within our own country”.
The measures, contained in the deal negotiated and championed by the Prime Minister last year, were designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland closely aligned with EU customs rules.
The Prime Minister 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.
Mr Johnson said that “if they fail to negotiate in good faith” the UK must introduce a “package of protective powers”.
David Cameron became the latest former prime minister to criticise the legislation, saying he had “misgivings” as “passing an Act of Parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate”.
Former chancellor Sajid Javid said he would not back the Bill at its second reading on Monday night.
“Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly,” he said.
“Having carefully studied the UK Internal Market Bill, it is not clear to me why it is necessary to do so.”
Geoffrey Cox, Mr Johnson’s former 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, another former attorney general Jeremy Wright 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 the current Attorney General Suella Braverman.
Meanwhile, Tory MP Rehman Chishti resigned as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in opposition to the clauses in the Bill.
He tweeted: “As an MP for 10 years and former barrister, values of respecting rule of law and honouring one’s word are dear to me.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer 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 bloc.
With Sir Keir self-isolating after a member of his household developed coronavirus symptoms, former Labour leader and shadow business secretary Ed Miliband responded to Mr Johnson in the Commons.
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.”
Despite the angry rhetoric from both sides in the post-Brexit talks, informal discussions on a future trade deal with the EU were due to continue this week, with a meeting expected between chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier and their teams due on Tuesday.