The UK justice secretary, Robert Buckland, has said he would resign if the law was “broken in a way that I find unacceptable”, as Downing Street continued to come under pressure over planned legislation that would override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
In a remarkable scene in the Commons last week that astonished Conservative backbenchers, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, admitted the internal market bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
The publication of the bill on Wednesday, under which key parts of the withdrawal agreement agreed last year with the EU would be negated, has infuriated Brussels and prompted a Tory rebellion. With the bill’s second reading on Monday before a parliament vote, Labour has confirmed it will vote against it in its current form.
Buckland, who as justice secretary has taken an oath to uphold the rule of law, faced repeated pressure on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday to say whether he would consider resigning over the bill. The legislation was a “break the glass in emergency provision if we need it”, Buckland claimed.
Pressed on whether he would walk away from the government, he said: “If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then, of course, I will go. We are not at that stage.”
Asked again directly if he would resign if the government breaks international law, Buckland said: “What I will be seeking to do, and indeed the government will be seeking to do, is to resolve that conflict as soon as possible.”
He added: “I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage. I know in my mind what I have to do. But the government collectively here also has a responsibility, we’ve got to resolve any conflict, that’s what we will do.”
Pressed a further time if he would resign at the point the government actually breaks international law, he said: “I don’t believe we’re going to get to that point and that is why I shall be working very hard to ensure we don’t.”
There is growing discontent among Conservative backbenchers over the bill, with senior Tory MP Sir Bob Neill tabling an amendment to impose a parliamentary lock on any changes to the withdrawal agreement.
On Friday, Boris Johnson sought to quell signs of a rebellion during a Zoom call with his MPs, telling them that the clauses in the bill were necessary to prevent a foreign power from “breaking up our country”.
However, on Sunday, the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, dismissed the prime minister’s assertion that the Northern Ireland protocol could be used to break up the UK.
“Protocol on IE/NI is not a threat to the integrity of the UK. We agreed this delicate compromise with Boris Johnson and his government in order to protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland. We could not have been clearer about the consequences of Brexit,” he tweeted.
Barnier also denied the EU iswas refusing to list the UK as a third country for food imports. “To be listed, we need to know in full what a country’s rules are, including for imports. The same objective process applies to all listed countries,” he said.
Speaking on the Marr programme, Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister, Rachel Reeves, confirmed her party would vote against the internal market bill in its current form as well as urging both the UK and the EU “to stop the posturing and get back to the negotiating table and take this seriously”.
She said: “So legislation is needed, a bill is needed, but we would like to see a greater level of collaboration between the nations of the United Kingdom rather than a power grab by Westminster.”
Asked if Labour would support Neill’s amendment, she said her party “would need to look at the detail of that amendment” and that it would be tabling amendments of its own as well.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, told the show that a post-Brexit trade agreement was still possible and that a no-deal would represent a failure of politics.
“Both the British and Irish economies are going to be damaged significantly and that will be a significant failure of politics not anything else,” he warned.
He also dismissed the idea that Brussels would block food deliveries to Northern Ireland, adding: “The British government is behaving in an extraordinary way and British people need to know that, because outside of Britain the reputation of the UK as a trusted negotiating partner is being damaged.”