Boris Johnson has put himself on a collision course with the Joe Biden administration in the US after Downing Street said it would press ahead with legislation designed to override the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
Peers are expected to pass an amendment to the internal market bill removing measures that seek to “disapply” parts of the Northern Ireland protocol – measures that Biden has said would put the Good Friday agreement at risk.
Should peers vote to rip out the clauses, Johnson would be placed in the awkward position of having to reinsert them before the bill’s return to the Commons in the coming weeks, in the knowledge that it could jeopardise a trade deal with the US.
Lord Judge, a former chief justice of England and Wales, opened the Lords debate on the amendment on Monday by describing the Brexit clauses as “pernicious, lamentable provisions” that had no other purpose than to give unilateral powers to Downing Street to “nullify” international law. The government has previously said the clauses would break international law in a “specific and limited way”.
Judge said the clauses had not been inserted as “guardian angels, pure and unsullied” into legislation aimed at smoothing trade between Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England after Brexit. “The executive is seeking powers that parliament should never have been asked to give,” said Judge, predicting an “overwhelming” majority for the amendment to demonstrate the Lords’ discontent with the government.
Downing Street and senior cabinet members including the environment secretary, George Eustice, on Monday, and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, on Sunday, reiterated their insistence that the clauses were necessary to give domestic power over the EU if it threatened the Good Friday agreement.
Michael Howard, a former Tory leader and an ardent Brexit supporter, said he was “dismayed” that a party he had “supported for so long” had “chosen as one of the first assertions of its newly won sovereignty to break its word, to break international law, to renege on a treaty signed barely a year ago”.
In a sombre speech, Robin Eames, a former primate of All Ireland, who authored the amendment, said peace in Northern Ireland and mutual understanding of previous warring communities was “still a tender plant” that was being put at risk by the bill.
Margaret Ritchie, a former SDLP leader, said Raab had “totally misrepresented” the situation in comments on the BBC on Sunday when he claimed that the EU was trying to undermine the Good Friday agreement. It was “the EU that sought and is seeking to protect the Belfast agreement through the NI protocol”, she said.
As recently as September, Biden said the Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of bloody conflict in the region, could not be allowed to become “a casualty of Brexit”. He said then: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
The UK government has admitted the legislation breaches part of the Northern Ireland protocol as set out in the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU. The clauses would hand sweeping unilateral powers to ministers in two key areas yet to be agreed with the EU, breaching the terms of the treaty agreed in January.
It would give ministers the power to change or disapply export rules for goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, and also give them power over whether to notify Brussels of any state aid decisions.
Eustice confirmed again on Monday that the government would reinstate the clauses that enable ministers to break international laws if they are rejected by the Lords.
“The UK internal market bill is not about undermining the Belfast agreement. It’s about standing behind it, making sure that it works and looking after the interests of Northern Ireland, making sure the peace and stability that’s been hard won there can carry on,” he said.
Downing Street said it was acting responsibly in order to allow a smooth transition should no deal be reached with the EU. “As a responsible government, we cannot allow the peace process or the UK internal market to inadvertently be compromised by unintended consequences of the protocol,” Johnson’s spokesman said.
“Any Lords amendments will be considered when they return to the Commons but we do consider these clauses to be a vital safety net. We are absolutely committed to the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and indeed that is why we’re bringing forward these clauses, which … are designed to create a safety net.”