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'I cannot support it': Theresa May leads Tory backlash against Johnson's bid to override NI Protocol

The former prime minister said the legislation to scrap parts of the Protocol is illegal and will diminish the UK’s global reputation.

Theresa May speaking during the House of Commons debate yesterday.
Theresa May speaking during the House of Commons debate yesterday.
Image: Parliament

THE UK GOVERNMENT’S legislation to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol cleared its first hurdle in the House of Commons yesterday. 

MPs voted by 295 to 221 to give the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill a second reading, clearing the way for it to undergo detailed scrutiny in the coming weeks, which will be followed by a further Commons vote. 

However, the Bill attracted fierce criticism from a number of Tory MPs as well as members of the opposition. 

The most notable critic of Boris Johnson’s plan to tear up parts of the Protocol, was none other than his predecessor, Theresa May. 

The former Conservative prime minister delivered a devastating assessment of the Bill, deeming it illegal, unlikely to achieve its aims and a risk to Britain’s global reputation. 

The Bill would see customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain effectively scrapped, and would allow UK government ministers to change almost every aspect of the text of the post-Brexit treaty.

Introducing the legislation yesterday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We simply cannot allow this situation to drift. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February due specifically to the protocol, at a time of major global economic challenges.

“Therefore, it is the duty of this Government to act now to enable a plan for restored local government to begin. It’s both legal and necessary.

“And while we put this Bill through Parliament, we will continue to seek a negotiated solution with the EU – and in fact, there are provisions of the Bill to deliver it.”

She also said that she was putting the Bill forward because: “I’m a patriot and a democrat, and our number one priority is protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland and protecting the Good Friday Agreement”.

But this reasoning was systematically dismantled by May in a series of questions.

“Thinking about this Bill, I actually started off by asking myself three questions,” she said.

“First of all, do I consider this to be legal under international law? Second, will it achieve its aims? And third, does it at least maintain the standing of the UK in the eyes of the world? My answer to all three of those questions is ‘no’.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“That is even before we look at the extraordinarily sweeping powers that this Bill would give to ministers.”

Drawing on her own experience in the top job, May expressed doubt that the Bill will bring the EU back to the negotiating table.

She also suggested that European leaders may have doubts about her successor’s future in No 10, following Johnson survival of a confidence vote in his leadership earlier this month.

“My experience was that the EU look very carefully at the political situation in any country,” she said.

“As I discovered after I had faced a no confidence vote, despite having won that no confidence vote, they then start to ask themselves, well is it really worth negotiating with these people in Government because will they actually be there in any period of time, regardless of justification or not for them taking that view.

But also, actually, I suspect they are saying to themselves, why should they negotiate in detail with a Government that shows itself willing to sign an agreement, claim it is a victory and then try to tear part of it up in less than three years time.

On the legal principle of necessity for the Bill, May said: “Necessity suggests urgent. Imminent peril is the phrase that is used. There is nothing urgent about this Bill.

“It has not been introduced as emergency legislation. It’s likely to take not weeks but months to get through Parliament.”

On the country’s global reputation, she said: “The UK’s standing in the world, our ability to convene and encourage others in the defence of our shared values depends on the respect others have for us as a country. A country that keeps its word and displays those shared values in its actions.”

In a thinly veiled dig to Truss, she said: “As a patriot, I would not want to do anything that would diminish this country in the eyes of the world.

“I have to say to the Government, this Bill is not, in my view, legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims, and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world, and I cannot support it.”

Her comments were echoed by several Tory rebels, including Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, who said the arguments supporting the Bill were “flimsy at best, and irrational at worst”.

“I think this Bill is a failure of statecraft and it puts at risk the reputation of the United Kingdom. The arguments supporting it are flimsy at best, and irrational at worst,” he said.

It is a Bill that risks economically harmful retaliation, a Bill that runs the risk of shredding our reputation as a guardian of international law and the rules-based system.

He warned Truss against “impugning the patriotism of colleagues across this House” who have concerns about the Bill.

Former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell also echoed May’s comments, saying that the Bill “trashes” Britain’s international reputation, and that it risks a trade war with the EU if it “brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty”.

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“It does seem to me that the EU is not being particularly constructive in trying to get the solution we all want to see achieved,” he said.

“But can I say to her that many of us are extremely concerned that the Bill brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty, it trashes our international reputation, it threatens a trade war at a time when our economy is flat and it puts us at odds with our most important ally.”

With the UK government aiming to fast track the Bill through the Commons before the summer recess, the rebellion within the Conservative Party is likely to concern Johnson going forward. 

May was among 72 Tory MPs who abstained from the vote. As Johnson only survived his confidence vote with a majority of 63, it could spell trouble as the Bill progresses.

It is also thought that it could face challenges if it reaches the House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not have a majority. This could lead to a one-year delay in the legislation being passed.

Outside of the UK, the EU has threatened to move against Britain if the Bill becomes law, having launched legal action just days after it was published.

Despite clearing the first hurdle, the Bill has a long way to go yet.

With reporting from the Press Association.

About the author:

Jane Moore

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