Boris Johnson has defended his move to introduce new legislation that would unstitch parts of his Brexit deal with Brussels, telling Tory MPs the bill was “necessary to stop a foreign power from breaking up our country”.
During a virtual meeting with Conservative MPs on Friday evening, the prime minister said the internal market bill, which the government has admitted will break international law, was “fantastic”.
He said the controversial elements of the bill, which has sparked anger on both sides of the Channel and the Irish Sea, were absolutely vital to protecting Britain’s integrity. “They’re vital if we want to prevent a foreign or international body from having the power to break up our country,” the prime minister told Tory backbenchers.
He maintained there was still “a very good chance” of a so-called Canada-style deal with the EU.
“There’s been progress in the past few months and they’ve realised how serious we are and what we want to achieve. But in the past few weeks I’ve had a concern about a difference of opinion that is becoming stark in their interpretation and our interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
“The difficulty has been that the EU has decided that unless we agree to their interpretation of what the checks would be, then the default position in the event of there being no agreement is that there should be nothing short of an economic barrier down the Irish Sea with tariffs.
He said there was a serious anomaly in the protocol and he wanted to “put a safety net under it”.
“What we can’t have is the threat of a border down the Irish Sea and the threat of the break-up of the United Kingdom.”
Mr Johnson is anxious to shore up support from his own party for the legislation, which seeks to overwrite crucial elements of the withdrawal agreement he secured with Brussels last year and which relate to Northern Ireland. And he called on MPs to give the bill overwhelming support at its second reading in the Commons on Monday.
The prime minister is facing a significant parliamentary rebellion, with almost 30 Conservative MPs expected to vote against the government when the bill begins its passage through the Commons.
Several senior Tories — including former prime ministers Theresa May and John Major — have criticised the legislation for undermining trust in the UK and damaging the country’s reputation.
The bill is expected to face amendments in the House of Commons, including one from former Tory minister Bob Neill that would only overrule the relevant elements of the withdrawal agreement in the event of a no-deal Brexit. One cabinet minister said the Neill amendment could be a ladder for the government to climb down from its tough stance on the legislation.
One of those present in the meeting with MPs on Friday said the prime minister “made the point several times that the EU are saying that in the event of no-deal, they will force us to put tariffs and checks down the Irish Sea, and decide unilaterally the nature of the products that are ‘at risk’ from going into EU”.
Mr Johnson also told the MPs that despite the backlash from Brussels, it was still possible to get a Canada-style trade deal “if we show resolve now”.
The latest round of negotiations between the UK and EU on their future relationship at the end of the Brexit transition period, which expires on December 31, ended in further stalemate this week.
But the size of the task facing Mr Johnson was laid bare again earlier in the day when leaders of the major political groups in the European parliament issued a fresh ultimatum, warning the UK that they would veto any potential trade deal if the government undermined the terms of the legally binding Brexit deal.
“Should the UK authorities breach — or threaten to breach — the withdrawal agreement, through the United Kingdom internal market bill in its current form or by any other way, the European parliament will in no circumstance ratify any agreement on the future relation between the EU and the UK,” the groups said in a statement seen by the Financial Times.
Under EU law, the parliament must approve EU trade deals with third countries.
The move is likely to have the backing of all pro-European groups in the parliament, including the centre-right, centre-left, greens, and liberals who make up a majority.
Brussels has warned the UK it has until the end of the month to remove the offending parts of the bill or face the threat of legal action.
Several Conservative MPs told the Financial Times that the anger about the government’s handling of the internal market bill was “broad”. Fifty MPs are thought to have expressed their unhappiness about challenging the withdrawal agreement to the party’s whips over the past 24 hours.
“The more I’ve been chatting to colleagues, the more worried I’d be if I was a whip,” said one influential MP. “At the moment, it’s the older ones who are unhappy but it might soon bleed into the younger MPs.”
Another backbench MP added: “The moment [for rebellion] is not there yet. But the Lords will rip this thing apart. So the question is: what happens when it comes back? It’s getting choppy out there [among MPs].”