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Brexit rebellion: David Cameron raises concerns over controversial bill, making a clean sweep of former PMs

Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox has also described it as ‘unconscionable’

Former UK prime minister David Cameron arriving at Downing Street last November.
Former UK prime minister David Cameron arriving at Downing Street last November.
Image: Jonathan Brady/PA Images

Updated Mon 8:53 AM

FORMER UK PRIME Minister David Cameron has said he has “misgivings” about Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans, becoming the fifth former prime minister to speak out against the UK Internal Market Bill. 

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons today amid growing criticism that breaching international law would jeopardise the UK’s reputation. 

The bill seeks to override the Brexit divorce deal agreed with between the EU and the UK, with the UK government admitting it would break international law. 

Theresa May MP spoke out against the plan in parliament last week while the other living PMs, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major, have also spoken out against it in the media.  

In mild criticism today, Cameron joined the former prime ministers in saying he was concerned about the plans. 

“Passing an act of parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate, it should be an absolute final resort. So I do have misgivings about what’s being proposed,” he said.

Cameron went on to suggest however that Johnson’s plans may be part of a negotiation strategy. 

I would just make this point, so far what’s happened is the government has proposed a law that it might pass or might not pass or might use or might not use depending on whether sudden certain circumstances do or do not appear. And of course the bigger picture here is we are in a vital negotiation with the European Union to get a deal. And I think we have to keep that context, that big prize in mind and that’s why I’ve been perhaps held back from saying more up to now. 

The intervention comes as Johnson’s former attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, has said it would be “unconscionable” to override the Brexit divorce deal, as the Tory rebellion against the controversial legislation grew.

The Tory MP said there is “no doubt” the “unpalatable” implications of the Withdrawal Agreement were known when the Prime Minister signed it, a time when Cox was the chief law officer.

The Brexiteer warned he would not back the UK Internal Market Bill unless ministers dispel the impression they plan to “permanently and unilaterally” rewrite an international agreement.

The QC, who was attorney general during the unlawful suspension of Parliament, said tariffs and customs procedures on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain were part of the deal.

“There can be no doubt that these were the known, unpalatable but inescapable, implications of the agreement,” he wrote in The Times.

He said if the powers in the Bill were used to “nullify those perfectly plain and foreseeable consequences” then it would amount to the “unilateral abrogation of the treaty obligations” signed in October.

“It is unconscionable that this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way,” he said.

Cox urged ministers to use the “clear and lawful” options under the agreement to remedy their concerns that food imports may be blocked from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Or, “in extremis”, he said, they could take “temporary and proportionate measures” during an independent arbitration process.

“What ministers should not do, however provoked or frustrated they may feel about an impasse in negotiations, is to take or use powers permanently and unilaterally to rewrite portions of an international agreement into which this country freely entered just a few months ago,” he said.

UK Justice Secretary Robert Buckland had earlier said the controversial powers amounted to a “break the glass in emergency provision if we need it” and said he did not believe they would be used.

He said, during questioning on The Andrew Marr Show, that he would resign “if I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable”, and insisted ministers were committed to getting a trade deal with the EU.

But the chances of the deed free trade deal being struck were hanging in the balance, with Downing Street’s chief negotiator Lord Frost heading to Brussels for informal talks this week.

Johnson warned that Brussels could “carve up our country” without his new Bill, as he stepped up his rhetoric as senior Tories prepared to rebel against the legislation.

Outrage at the Bill has come from across the political spectrum, including from Conservative former prime ministers Theresa May, John Major and Lord Howard.

John and fellow former PM Tony Blair united to urge MPs to reject the “shaming” legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.

“It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal – crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation,” they wrote in the Sunday Times.

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Despite Johnson’s attempts to drum up support, Tory rebels suggested their numbers were growing and opinions were only hardened by Johnson’s increased rhetoric.

The Prime Minister, with a large Commons majority, should win an expected vote of the Bill’s principles during the second reading of the Bill today. 

But a rebellion could come later with Commons justice committee chairman Bob Neill’s amendment, which he said would impose a “parliamentary lock” on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Labour minister Rachel Reeves said the party would “need to look at the detail” of Bob’s amendment and said Labour MPs will table amendments of their own.

She told the Marr show that Labour will vote against the Government’s Bill if it still contains clauses overriding the Withdrawal Agreement.

- With reporting by Press Association

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Rónán Duffy

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