Bill will break law and ‘diminish’ UK in eyes of world and will not work, says former prime minister
Theresa May has called Boris Johnson’s patriotism into question as she declared she will not support his bid to override the Northern Ireland protocol which he agreed with the EU as part of his Brexit withdrawal deal in 2019.
In a scathing intervention in the House of Commons, the former prime minister said that legislation put forward unilaterally by the government would breach international law, and would lose the UK the respect of countries elsewhere in the world.
And she told MPs she did not believe Mr Johnson’s controversial plan would solve the problems created by his decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea with his Brexit deal – something which she previously said “no UK prime minister could ever agree to”.
Speaking to MPs, Ms May said “as a patriot” she could not back a course of action which would diminish the UK’s standing in the world – and then accused the PM’s plan of doing exactly that.
And she questioned whether the EU would in any case take his threats seriously after he narrowly survived a confidence vote among his own MPs, saying that European leaders will now be asking themselves, “Is it really worth negotiating with these people in government, because will they actually be there for any period of time?”
Her comments mark the highest-profile assault from within his own party on Mr Johnson’s plan, which would effectively tear up his Brexit agreement with Brussels and risk a trade war with the EU.
Ahead of a vote in which the bill was expected to clear its first hurdle in the Commons, Ms May told MPs: “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.
“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.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has sparked outrage in Brussels and Dublin by threatening to set aside key features of the agreement negotiated and signed by Mr Johnson in 2019 and then presented to voters as an “oven-ready deal” in that year’s general election.
It would lift customs checks on goods from mainland Britain arriving for sale in Northern Ireland, end the harmonisation of the province’s VAT with the rest of the EU single market of which it still forms part, and remove the European Court of Justice from any role in arbritrating on disputes over the border.
But foreign secretary Liz Truss insisted that the government’s plans were legal, citing the internationally recognised “doctrine of necessity” which allows countries to bypass elements in treaties in cases of emergency where no other option is available to them.
Citing unionist parties’ concerns that the protocol created a “democratic deficit” in Northern Ireland, she told the Commons that the government wanted a negotiated solution to resolve trade difficulties across the Irish Sea, but that the EU’s refusal to change its negotiating mandate left unilateral legislative action as its only option.
But Ms May told her that the government’s ability to negotiate was undermined by its unwillingness to abide by recently signed deals.
“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 as a victory and then try to tear part of it up in less than three years," hun sa.
The “peril” which the bill is intended to overcome “is a direct result of the border down the Irish Sea which was an integral and inherent part of the protocol which the government signed in the withdrawal agreement”, said Ms May, whose backstop arrangement – much derided by Mr Johnson – was designed to avoid exactly this problem.
The bill also came under attack from Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith, who described it as “a kind of displacement activity from the core task of doing whatever we can to negotiate a better protocol deal for Northern Ireland”.
Former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell told Ms Truss that it “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”.
And the Tory chair of the Commons Northern Ireland committee, Simon Hoare, denounced it as “a failure of statecraft [at] puts at risk the reputation of the United Kingdom”.
“The arguments supporting it are flimsy at best, and irrational at worst,” said Mr Hoare. “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.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Commons that the protocol has had a “devastating” impact on Northern Ireland over the past 18 måneder.
“How can anyone in this house defend a situation where part of this United Kingdom is treated in a way where its elected representatives have no say in many of the laws that regulate our trade with the rest of the United Kingdom?” he asked.
But speaking outside the chamber, Sir Jeffrey declined to say whether its passage would prompt the largest unionist party to end its boycott of power-sharing institutions, telling reporters only that they would “consider what steps we can take” once the bill passes the House of Commons.