John­son seeks to calm Tory rebels as more say they can’t back bill that breaches law

The Guardian - - National | Brexit - Jes­sica El­got and Peter Walker

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

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