“Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly. Having carefully studied the UK internal market bill it is not clear to me why it is necessary to do so,” said former chancellor Sajid Javid. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
SAJID JAVID on Monday (14) said “respect for the rule of law” was sacrosanct as he rebelled against Boris Johnson’s legislative bill that would override parts of the Brexit treaty struck with the European Union last year.
The former chancellor was joined by top Tory figures such as former attorney-generals Geoffrey Cox and Jeremy Wright in abstaining from voting on the internal markets bill.
Notably, every living former prime minister — Conservatives John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May and Labour’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — also warned of the risk to Britain’s global reputation.
Though the bill managed to clear the first hurdle in Parliament, the prime minister saw two Tory MPs — Sir Roger Gale and Andrew Percy — voting against it.
Johnson had argued that the legislation was a “safety net” against what he claimed were EU threats to impose tariffs on UK internal trade and even stop food going from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
However, Javid, who had stepped down as chancellor in February, said: “One of the UK’s greatest strengths is respect for the rule of law.
“Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly. Having carefully studied the UK internal market bill it is not clear to me why it is necessary to do so.
“I will therefore regretfully be unable to support the Bill… and urge the Government to amend it in the coming days.”
In another blow for the government, Conservative MP Rehman Chishti quit as the prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief on Monday morning, saying he would not vote for the bill as a “matter of principle”.
“I have real concerns with the UK unilaterally breaking its legal commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement,” he said in his resignation letter to Johnson.
“During my 10 years in Parliament and before that as a Barrister, I have always acted in a manner which respects the rule of law.
“I feel very strongly about keeping the commitments we make; if we give our word, then we must honour it.
“Voting for this bill as it currently stands would be contrary to the values I hold dearest.
“I am only too sorry that our difference on this matter means that I cannot vote for the Bill in its current form, on a matter of principle, and thereby will not be able to continue to serve as your Special Envoy.”
Cox, who was axed during the cabinet reshuffle in February, echoed similar views, saying: “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 added that the UK should opt for “lawful remedies open to us… rather than violating international law and a solemn treaty”.
“What I can say from my perspective is we simply cannot approve or endorse a situation in which we go back on our word, given solemnly not only by the British Government and on behalf of the British Crown, but also by Parliament when we ratified this in February, unless there are extreme circumstances which arrive involving a breach of duty of the good faith by the EU,” he told Radio Times.
“We signed up, we knew what we were signing, we simply can’t seek to nullify those ordinary consequences of doing that and I simply can’t support that.
“The breaking of the law leads ultimately to very long-term and permanent damage to this country’s reputation and it is also a question of honour to me.”
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband, who stood in for self-isolating Labour leader Keir Starmer, targeted the prime minister, saying the issue highlighted “incompetence” and “failure of governance”.
“And I have to say to him, this is not just legislative hooliganism on any issue, it is on the most sensitive issues of all.”
He added that there was only “one person responsible” for the logjam. “This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure,” he said.
Johnson, however, remained unrelenting even as many Conservative MPs planned to pressure him to amend the bill before it is taken up for discussion at the committee level.
He said the bill will ensure “unfettered access” for trade after that within the UK’s four nations — Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But the legislation would see London unilaterally regulate UK trade and state aid within Northern Ireland — in violation of the Brexit treaty, that demands Brussels have a say.
The prime minister acknowledged some personal “unease” at giving ministers powers to override the Brexit treaty but said they would not be needed if a trade deal was agreed as hoped with Brussels.
“What we cannot do now is tolerate a situation where our EU counterparts seriously believe that they have the power to break up our country,” he said.
“That illusion must be decently despatched.”
Johnson, though, said it was essential to counter “absurd” threats from Brussels including that London put up trade barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland and impose a food blockade – steps he said threatened the UK’s unity.
“The EU still have not taken this revolver off the table,” he told Parliament before the vote. “What we cannot do now is tolerate a situation where our EU counterparts seriously believe that they have the power to break up our country.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel was among stalwarts who backed Johnson. “When it comes to preserving the integrity of the UK and clearly delivering for the people of Northern Ireland… we’ve said from day one that we would always stand by our word and not compromise when it comes to unfettered access in goods and services but also standing by the Good Friday Agreement,” she said on BBC Breakfast.