Boris Johnson’s concession on legislation allowing him to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement has been dismissed as insufficient by Brussels and leading Tory critics of the plans.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard said the move – made in response to intense disquiet on Conservative benches over measures which the government admits breach International law – was not enough to stave off probable defeat of the UK Internal Market Bill in the House of Lords.
And the European Commission said that its ultimatum to withdraw the offending provisions by the end of the month or face legal action and the collapse of trade talks remained unchanged.
The prime minister last night agreed to give MPs a vote before the implementation of measures which would unilaterally waive tariffs, customs paperwork and state aid controls which he signed up to in last year’s divorce deal with Brussels.
Senior Tories believe the move, incorporating a rebel amendment from former minister Sir Bob Neill into the body of the bill, has taken a good deal of the heat out of the issue in the House of Commons, where two Conservatives voted against Mr Johnson’s legislation and up to 30 abstained on Monday.
But Lord Howard, a longstanding supporter of Brexit, said the PM had not gone far enough and the chances of the bill getting through the House of Lords were “not great”.
In an indication that peers may not regard themselves as bound by the Salisbury Convention, under which Upper House does not block measures from the ruling party’s election manifesto, Lord Howard said that resistance to the bill “may go beyond” a simple stand-off with the Commons.
Meanwhile, a cross-party committee of peers urged Mr Johnson to reconsider his proposals, which they said were damaging to trust in negotiations on an EU trade deal and the UK’s reputation overseas.
And EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said today that the UK government will have to “correct” its position before negotiations on political and economic relations can continue.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said its deadline for the removal of the clauses from the bill “has not changed”.
And European Parliament Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said the parliament “will not give its consent to any trade deal” until the provisions are removed from the bill.
Details of the government-backed amendment released today said that the controversial measures would be implemented only if the UK felt the EU was “engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations” in a way which undermined the purpose of the Northern Ireland protocol included in the withdrawal agreement.
– Brussels requiring tariffs to be charged on goods exported from the British mainland to Northern Ireland that were at no real risk of moving on to the EU.
– The EU insisting on export declarations for Northern Irish goods destined for Great Britain.
– Demands for state aid controls to be applied on subsidies to British firms which have only a “trivial” link to Northern Ireland.
– Withholding the “third country” status required for the UK to export agricultural goods to the EU for “manifestly unreasonable or poorly justified reasons”.
Mr Johnson claims the measures are needed as a “safety net” to prevent the withdrawal agreement which he negotiated, signed and pushed through parliament being used by the EU to impose a food blockade on Northern Ireland. The concession brokered with Sir Bob last night is designed to reassure restive Tory MPs that the measures would not be deployed without the approval of the Commons.
But the European Commission has already made clear that the simple act of tabling the proposals has left the UK open to legal action for breaching provisions of the withdrawal agreement requiring it to act in good faith.
And Lord Howard said: “It is not enough to make me change my mind.
“My objection to this bill is that it invites parliament to use its sovereignty to break international law and I don’t think parliament should be asked to do that.
“The only thing that would satisfy me would be if the government were to withdraw from the bill those parts of it which breach international law.”
In a further sign of troubles ahead for Mr Johnson when the bill reaches the Upper House in October, the House of Lords EU Environmental Sub-Committee wrote to environment secretary George Eustice to express “deep concern” over the PM’s plans.
The committee, which has three Tory members, accused Mr Eustice of “a lack of openness” over the likelihood of additional checks and controls on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK after the end of the Brexit transition on 31 December.
Chair Lord Teverson said: “The government’s internal market proposals have implications for trust and the UK’s reputation for abiding by its international agreements.
“We urge the government to reconsider its proposals and to engage with the EU constructively.”
Asked by German newspaper Welt if it was possible for the EU to negotiate with an administration which had indicated it may not uphold its side of any deal, Mr Dombrovskis said: “The behaviour of the British government is causing us concerns.
“If the UK does not comply with the withdrawal agreement, then there is no longer any basis for a free trade treaty between the EU and the UK.
“The British government must correct this before we continue negotiating on our political and economic relations.”