Johnson seeks to calm Tory rebels as more say they can’t back bill that breaches law
Boris Johnson has privately sought to calm angry MPs who plan to back an amendment to dilute his bill unpicking the EU withdrawal agreement.
His intervention raises expectations that the government will do a deal with backbenchers at a parliamentary showdown next week.
More Conservative MPs have said they could join a rebellion against the government on the UK internal market bill’s breach of international law unless an agreement is reached.
The Guardian understands Johnson has spoken to a number of MPs behind an amendment that would put a “parliamentary lock” on using the powers in the bill and given reassurances that a deal can be done over the clauses overriding parts of the withdrawal agreement, signed in January.
He is said to have privately conceded to MPs who spoke to him on Monday night that the admission by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, that the bill broke international law had been the wrong tactic.
But a source close to Lewis said his admission had not been an error but was an agreed “direct answer” signed off by No 10 and government lawyers.
Several MPs said they now expected the government to give assurances that would persuade them to back the government when the amendment from Conservative MP Bob Neill comes to the House of Commons. It is thought those concessions could come at the debate or after the bill comes back from the Lords.
“I think the government is eventually going to get its way on this,” one senior rebel MP said. “There will be a deal.”
Although the bill passed with a comfortable 77 majority at its second reading, the focus in Westminster is next week’s vote on the Neill amendment. At present, measures in the bill would hand unilateral powers to ministers to breach some terms of the treaty. Neill’s amendment would ensure the powers would not be used without another vote in parliament.
If there are no reassurances from Johnson, Neill’s supporters believe there may be a number of MPs who voted with the government on Monday who could back his amendment.
Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, told the Commons he would let the bill pass to second reading but would not vote to pass a bill into law that would break an international treaty. “I do not believe I have ever gone into a lobby to vote in a way that I knew was wrong, and I will not be doing it on this occasion.”
A number of MPs who abstained still believe Neill’s amendment does not go far enough. “These are pernicious clauses and I’d rather see them out of the bill altogether,” said one prominent rebel. “I may be prepared to go further if there was a viable option.”
The list of Conservative MPs who deliberately abstained on the bill is now known to be at least 20, including two former Northern Ireland secretaries – Karen Bradley and Julian Smith.
Other senior Conservatives who abstained include two former attorneys general, Geoffrey Cox and Jeremy Wright, the former chancellor Sajid Javid, the vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, Charles Walker, and a number of other select committee chairs.
Number 10 would only say publicly yesterday that MPs would get a standard option to vote on invoking the powers contained within the bill as a statutory instrument. Neill has said such an assurance was not enough and a standard SI vote would not provide enough opportunity for scrutiny.
The bill is likely to face difficulties in the Lords where even veteran Brexiters, such as Norman Lamont, have spoken against its implications.
A No 10 spokesman said the convention that peers would not vote down policies in an election manifesto applied to the bill given that “guaranteeing the full economic benefit of leaving the EU to all parts of the UK” was a manifesto commitment. Some peers are likely to point out that the manifesto also said the party would implement the withdrawal agreement.
‘These are pernicious clauses and I’d rather see them out’
Prominent Tory rebel