British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/LEON NEAL
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/LEON NEAL

London — 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 EU last year.

The prime minister is facing a revolt from Tories dismayed at his plan to break international law by unilaterally rewriting 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 — on Monday, but officials are still braced for an ugly fight over the proposals next week, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

UK 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 on Monday, 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 on Monday he wanted to give ministers the chance to address his concerns. A Downing Street official said the government is 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 EU and the UK. The talks are already stuck, with just more than 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 year-end would leave the UK facing disruption in trading 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.

Johnson’s special envoy on faith resigned in protest at the plan and Buckland has faced calls to quit because, as Lord Chancellor, his role is to uphold the rule of law. Speaking on Wednesday, Buckland said the UK is not at the stage of breaking international law yet. If the UK did breach the terms of the EU exit treaty “that would cause me a problem”, he told Sky.

On Tuesday one of the UK’s top legal officials defended Johnson’s plans by insisting they don’t breach international law after all — contradicting comments from Lewis and the prime minister’s office last week.

“The secretary of state for Northern Ireland essentially answered the wrong question,” Richard Keen, the advocate-general for Scotland, told the House of Lords. The bill deals with a “contingent situation” in which the EU would be in breach of its treaty obligations.

“The provisions of the bill are entirely limited in their intent and effect, and fall within the rule of law and the requirements of international law,” he said. “I certainly don’t anticipate that those provisions would be abused.”


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