Boris Johnson has held talks with rebels in the UK’s ruling Conservative Party in an attempt to win their backing for his controversial law rewriting part of the Brexit deal he struck with the European Union last year.
The prime minister is facing a revolt from Tories dismayed at his plan to break international law by unilaterally re-writing parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement he signed with the EU.
Johnson and other senior government figures held talks with one leading rebel in the party — Bob Neill —, but officials are still braced for an ugly fight over the proposals next week, people familiar with the matter said.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said on Wednesday he has been involved in some of the conversations with Neill and that with “shared understanding” a compromise can be reached. “There are lots of discussions going on with all parts of the Conservative Party,” Buckland told Sky News. “With a big majority this government will be able to get this legislation through,” he later told the BBC.
The prime minister’s Internal Market Bill passed its first parliamentary hurdle, but Neill and a dozen other Conservatives are trying to amend it to require the government to seek approval from MPs before exercising the most controversial powers the law will give it.
No deal has been done with the rebels yet, according to a person familiar with the situation, but Neill said he wanted to give ministers the chance to address his concerns. A Downing Street official said the government was engaging with MPs in the normal way.
Johnson’s plan to rip up parts of the Withdrawal Agreement threatens to blow apart the delicate negotiations over a future trade deal between the bloc and the UK. The talks are already stuck, with just over three months left to reach a solution, and the EU has threatened legal action if Johnson doesn’t back down. Failure to reach an accord by the year-end would leave the UK facing disruption to trade with its nearest neighbour and chaos at its ports.
The row erupted after Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs last week that the Internal Market Bill would break international law in “a limited and specific way.”
The government said the legislation aims to prevent the EU erecting trade barriers between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland if no agreement can be reached on future arrangements for the region.
But Lewis’s comments provoked a wave of anger. All five of Johnson’s living predecessors as prime minister have publicly expressed their concern at the damage his plan is doing
to the UK’s international reputation as a reliable partner that respects the rule of law. One government adviser resigned.