Senior Conservatives have refused to back down on their rebellion against Boris Johnson’s controversial Brexit legislation – despite his warning that Brussels could “carve up our country” without it.
The prime minister has urged Conservative MPs to support the UK Internal Market Bill, which his government has admitted breaks international law.
Addressing about 250 MPs on Friday evening, Mr Johnson said the bill was necessary in order to avoid “an economic barrier down the Irish Sea”.
It overrides parts of the EU divorce deal and has sparked fury in Brussels, which has threatened legal action over what it considers a violation of an international treaty.
Tory rebels suggested that opinions were only hardened by Mr Johnson’s conference call with backbenchers and believed support was growing for their amendment to the UK Internal Market Bill.
Increasing pressure on MPs, former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair united to urge them to reject the legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.
The Conservative and Labour grandees wrote in the Sunday Times: “We both opposed Brexit. We both accept it is now happening. But this way of negotiating, with reason cast aside in pursuit of ideology and cavalier bombast posing as serious diplomacy, is irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.
“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.”
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, told Sky News the government’s strategy was causing “a lot of collateral damage” and risked diminishing the UK’s status as a “global role model”.
“As things go down to the wire, let’s not forget who we are,” Mr Ellwood said.
“Let’s not forget the bigger picture.
“Rule of law is everything and to unilaterally ignore a treaty obligation would damage our hard-fought reputation as an upholder and defender of international standards and values.
“There is a lot of collateral damage being caused by this current strategy of putting this bill in its current form through the House.
“It’s not about Brexit… this is about Britain being one of the founding fathers of modern democracy and international law and order.”
Mr Ellwood said he hoped Number 10 would “look carefully” at an amendment to the bill, which is being tabled by senior backbencher Sir Bob Neill.
Sir Bob, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee, has said the amendment would impose a “parliamentary lock” on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
Unamended I cannot support this Bill.
Let’s secure Brexit-but remember what we stand for.
Already this Bill is damaging brand UK, diminishing our role-model status as defender of global standards. As we go to the wire let’s see more British statecraft-less Nixonian Madman Theory pic.twitter.com/pD5Sl55cC6
— Tobias Ellwood MP (@Tobias_Ellwood) September 12, 2020
Tory MP Sir Roger Gale also remained a vehement critic of the legislation, telling Times Radio: “If anybody is responsible, if it happens, for bringing the union down, it will be (chief aide Dominic) Cummings and Mr Johnson.”
It comes after the prime minister spoke with around 250 MPs on Friday to try to drum up support for the bill, and warned them against a return to the “miserable, squabbling days of last autumn” over Brexit.
And, in an incendiary article for The Telegraph, Mr Johnson said Brussels was threatening to use an “extreme interpretation” of the Northern Ireland Protocol to impose “a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea” that could stop the transport of food from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Both Ireland and the EU have warned that Mr Johnson’s plans pose a serious risk to the peace process rather than protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
But he doubled down and argued it is “crucial for peace and for the union itself” and said voting the bill down would reduce the chances of a trade deal with the EU, which is hanging in the balance.
He asked MPs to help him “remove this danger to the very fabric” of the UK by taking away “the theoretical power to carve up our country”.
Sky News’ chief political correspondent Jon Craig said he understood Mr Johnson’s call to MPs was hit by technical problems and at one point the sound was lost.
Craig said: “It’s claimed Michael Fabricant started singing Rule Britannia, (and) that Steve Baker – the hardline eurosceptic said ‘Shall I take over?’ – at which point the former prime minister Theresa May said ‘No’ in a very stern way.”
Earlier, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove claimed the EU had not been “keeping to their side of the bargain” on the Brexit deal and insisted the government had been “operating within the rule of law”.
This is despite Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitting to MPs earlier this week that the proposed legislation “does break international law in a very specific and limited way“.
Mr Gove told Sky News: “The legal position was made clear by the attorney general – we’re operating within the rule of law.
“It is the case, however, that we do have to take insurance policies.
“We hope that we don’t have to implement the provisions that exist within the Internal Market Bill – but why are we bring this bill forward? Because it is part of implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol.
“It’s part of making sure that we can continue to have unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland, from businesses in Northern Ireland, so they can continue to benefit from being part of the United Kingdom.”
Some senior Conservatives are planning to amend the legislation, and grandees including former party leaders Michael Howard, Sir John Major and Theresa May have spoken out against it.
European Parliament leaders have said they would “under no circumstances ratify” any trade deal reached if “UK authorities breach or threaten to breach” the Withdrawal Agreement.
The European Commission has given the UK until the end of the month to drop it.
Meanwhile, Germany’s finance minister has claimed a no-deal Brexit would hurt the British economy a lot more than the EU.
Olaf Scholz said: “My assessment is that an unregulated situation would have very significant consequences for the British economy.
“Europe would be able to deal with it and there would be no particularly serious consequences after the reparations we have already made.”
The bill returns to the Commons on Monday.