Boris Johnson squirms as Ed Miliband grills him on law-breaking Brexit bill

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Boris Johnson squirmed in his seat on the government frontbench this afternoon as Ed Miliband, standing in for Labour leader Keir Starmer, grilled him on the controversial internal market bill being put to the Commons today.

With Starmer self-isolating after being told this morning that a member of his household was showing possible symptoms of Covid-19, the Shadow Business Secretary and former party leader opened the debate for Labour.

Responding to the Prime Minister’s claims that the bill is needed for barrier-free trade with Northern Ireland, Miliband said: “This bill does precisely nothing to address the issue of the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

“It is about two issues where they’re going to override international law. It’s about exit declarations – Northern Ireland to GB – and the definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland.

“If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there’s another part of this bill that I haven’t noticed that will deal with this supposed threat of a blockade, I’ll give way to him. I’ll very happily give way to him.

“He can tell us. I’m sure he’s read it, I’m sure he knows it, I’m sure he knows it in detail – because he’s a details man. Come on, tell us, what clause protects protect the threat that he says he is worried about?”

Boris Johnson did not accept Miliband’s invitation to intervene in the debate and clarify why the bill that would give the UK government the power to break international law is needed.

Later in the parliamentary debate, Miliband said of the bill: “What the Prime Minister is coming to this House to tell us today is that his flagship achievement, the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said was ‘oven-ready’, the deal on which he fought and won the general election is now contradictory and ambiguous.

“What incompetence, what failure of governance. And how dare he try to blame everyone else? This time, he can’t blame [Theresa May], he can’t blame John Major, he can’t blame the judges, he can’t sack the civil servants, he can’t sack the Cabinet Secretary again.

“There is one person responsible for it, and that’s him. This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure. For the first time in his life, it’s time to take responsibility. It’s time to ‘fess up. Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it.”

Below is the full text of Ed Miliband’s speech. 

I beg to move the amendment standing in the name of the leader of the opposition and other right honourable and honourable friends. There are two questions at the heart of this bill and why will be opposing it tonight. First, how do we get an internal market after January 1st within the UK while upholding the devolution settlements which have been part of our constitution now for two decades and are vital to our Union? Secondly, is our country going to abide by the rule of law, a rules-based international order for which we are famous around the world and have always stood up for? These are not small questions but go the heart of our character as a country.

Let me start with the first question. An internal market is vital for trade and jobs at home, but also for our ability to strike trade deals. And it is the responsibility of the UK government at Westminster to safeguard that market. On this, we agree with the government. But it must be carried out understanding that the last two decades of devolution settlements were a decision that we would share power across our four nations. Including devolving key powers over issues like animal welfare, food safety and aspects of environmental legislation. So we should be legislating for an internal market but in a way that respects the role of devolved governments in having a voice in setting those standards.

What we’ve heard from across the UK is that that is not the government’s approach. They want to legislate with a blunderbuss approach that does not do that. And simply says the lowest standard in one parliament must become the standard for all, with no proper voice for devolved governments. The way through this would have been not just to agree common frameworks, but to legislate for them. That is what we will be arguing for during the passage of this bill.

These issues were prefigured in the white paper but since then we have an even bigger question to confront. Let me say right at the outset. We want the smoothest trade across our United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. There is a way to resolve these issues in the joint committee set up for the purpose. Only this Prime Minister would think taking a wrecking ball to the NI protocol would be the right way to resolve them.

While I have been part of many issues of contention across this despatch box, I never thought respecting international law would in my lifetime be a matter of disagreement. I stood opposite the Prime Minister’s predecessor but one, David Cameron, as leader of the opposition for five years. I disagreed with him profoundly on many issues, but I could never have imagined him coming along and saying we are going to legislate to break international law on an agreement we had just signed less than a year earlier as a country. But that is what this bill does in the government’s own words.

Let me address the three questions at the heart of this issue. Is it right to threaten to break the law in the way the government proposes? Is it necessary to do so? Will it help our country? The answers to each of these questions is no. Let us first of all start with the principles here. If there is one thing we are known for around the world, it is the rule of law. The country of the Magna Carta. The country that is known for having the mother of all parliaments. The country that out of the darkness of the Second World War helped found the United Nations. Our global reputation for rule-making, not rule-breaking, is one of the reasons we have been so respected around the world. When you ask people to think of Britain, they think of the rule of law.

Let’s be clear after the PM’s speech. This is not an argument about Remain vs Leave, it is an argument about right vs wrong. The Brexiteer and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lamont says the bill is “impossible to defend”. The Brexiteer and former Attorney General, who helped to negotiate and signed off this deal as Attorney General, says the bill is “unconscionable”.

And the Brexiteer, the Lord Howard, his former boss said: “I never thought it was a thing I’d hear a British minister, far less a Conservative minister, say, which is that the government was going to invite parliament to act in breach of international law… We have a reputation for probity, for upholding the rule of law, and it’s a reputation that is very precious and ought to be safeguarded, and I am afraid it was severely damaged…by the bill.”

The Prime Minister has said many times he wants to bring unity to the country during his premiership. I therefore congratulate him on having in just one short year united his five predecessors. Unfortunately, their point of agreement is that he is trashing the reputation of this country and trashing the reputation of his office. And why are the five former Prime Ministers so united on this point? Because they know our moral authority in the world comes from our commitment to the rule of law and keeping our word.

We rightly condemn China when it rides roughshod over the treaties dictating the future of Hong Kong. We say they signed them in good faith. We say they are going back on their word. We say they can’t be trusted. And his defence: ‘Don’t worry I can’t be trusted either’. And we know from now what they will throw back at us. That we too don’t keep to international law.

And I want to dispense with each of the government’s arguments for why they should be allowed to get away with this and believe me there have been many over the last few days. I’ve lost count. Let me give the House the top five. First, let’s deal with the argument about blockades which made its first outing in the Telegraph on Saturday from the Prime Minister and it certainly made a big appearance today.

This is as ridiculous an argument as I have heard even by the standards of this government. This is what Article 16 says: “If the application of the protocol leads to serious, economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.” In the words of the former Attorney General, someone who knows this protocol better than the Prime Minister I think, “there are clear and lawful responses available to her majesty’s government…”. Far from upending the protocol, it offers protection.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the bill does precisely nothing to address the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, it is about exit declarations NI-GB and the narrow definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. It’s a completely bogus argument. Second, he claimed on Wednesday it was necessary to protect the Good Friday agreement. I have to say I would rather trust the authors of the Good Friday agreement than a Prime Minister who has prominent members of the government who opposed the agreement.

This is what John Major and Tony Blair wrote “[the bill] puts the Good Friday agreement at risk because it negates the predictability, the political stability, and legal clarity that are integral to the delicate balance between the north and south of Ireland that is at the core of the peace process”. He may not want to believe them but maybe he will believe himself. Because this is what he said about the NI protocol: “there are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland at the border that deserve particular respect and sensitivity, and that is what they have received in the deal.​ This is… a great deal for Northern Ireland”. This is not just legislative hooliganism, it is hooliganism on the most sensitive of issues.

Third, there was the other argument on Saturday. It was all a bit of a rush. Or as the PM says – times were “torrid” and “there was a serious misunderstanding”. But they were warned for months about the way the protocol would work. Like the CDL was warned at the select committee in March. The business secretary at the House of Lords committee in April. Let’s get this straight for a minute. What he’s telling us is that his flagship achievement. The deal the prime minister told us was a triumph. The deal he said was oven-ready. The deal on which he fought and won a general election. Now he says far from being oven-ready, it is completely half baked. Or in the words of No. 10, it is “contradictory and ambiguous”.

What incompetence. What failure of governance. How dare he try and blame everyone else. Can I say to the Prime Minister. This time He can’t blame the right honourable member for Maidenhead. He can’t blame John Major. He can’t blame the judges. He can’t blame the civil servants. He can’t sack the cabinet secretary again. There is only one person responsible for this. Him. This is his deal. His mess. His failure. For the first time in his life it’s time to take responsibility. It’s time to fess up. Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal or he didn’t understand it. A competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with.

And if such a government somehow missed the point but woke up later it would have done what any competent business would do after it realises it can’t live with the terms of a contract, it would negotiate a way out in good faith. This is why it’s all so unnecessary. There is a mechanism designed for exactly this purpose. The Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol. What did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say on March 11th at the Brexit Select Committee and he said: “the effective working of the protocol is a matter for the joint committee to resolve”. The remaining issues which this bill speaks to are not insignificant, but nor are they insurmountable. On exit summary declarations and on state aid there is an agreement that can and should be reached

Fourth, on Sunday, there was the Justice Secretary’s ‘the fire alarm’ defence – ‘we don’t want to have to do this but we might have to’. Let us be clear, as I said at the outset, the very act of passing this bill breaks international law, not just exercising the power. And nothing at issue in this agreement justifies trashing our reputation, putting at risk the chances of a deal and the situation in Northern Ireland. Finally, let us deal with the last defence first floated as a trial balloon by the Northern Ireland Secretary who said it was a breach of the law in a “specific and limited way”.

This really is a new way of thinking about legal questions. It now turns out that breaking the law specifically and in a limited way is a reasonable defence for this government. We have all heard of self-defence, the alibi defence, the innocence defence. Now we have the Johnson defence. You can break the law in a specific and limited way. Think about the current grave context we face. The Home Secretary came out today in the newspapers warning everyone. You must abide by the law. By the way, she’s right.

“I know that, as part of our national effort, the law-abiding majority will stick to these new rules. But there will be a small minority who do not”. You couldn’t make it up. But what she doesn’t say is that the Johnson defence means something very specific. That there is one rule for the British public and another rule for this government. Pioneered by Cummings, implemented by Johnson.

So this is the wrong thing to do, it is not necessary and it is also deeply damaging for the country. Let’s just think about this in terms of the impact on our country and the negotiations. The government’s hope is that this will make a deal more likely but that relies on the notion that reneging on a deal we made less than a year ago with the party we are negotiating with will make them more likely to trust us — not less. This feels pretty hard to believe.

And we know the risks of no-deal if this strategy goes wrong. The Prime Minister said last week that no-deal is somehow a “good outcome”. He is wrong. I hear from businesses all the time who are deeply worried about the danger of no-deal. I know what he thinks about their views on this because of his famous four-letter rant. But this is what they say. Nissan says there could be no guarantees about its Sunderland plant if there were tariffs on UK-to-EU trade. Ford have said no-deal would be “disastrous”. The NFU say it would be “catastrophic” for British farming. The CDL said something similar. We are in the biggest economic crisis for 300 years. No-deal is not some game, it is about the livelihoods of millions of people across our country.

And what about the prized trade deal with the United States. I know the Prime Minister thinks he has a friend in President Trump but even he must recognise he must be able to deal with both sides. This is what the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said: “The UK must respect the Northern Ireland protocol as signed with the EU … If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”

We cannot support this bill and we will oppose it tonight. The government must go back, remove the sections breaking international law and ensure the bill works in a way that respects the devolution settlements. That is what a responsible, competent and law-abiding government would do. This is a pivotal moment in determining the future architecture of our country, who we are and how we operate. In shaping that future we have to stand up for our traditions that matter. Our commitment to the rule of law.

This bill speaks of a government, a Prime Minister, that is casual, not to say cavalier and reckless, about the gravity of the issues it confronts. He should be focusing on securing a Brexit deal, not breaking international law and risking no-deal. He is cavalier on international law. This is not the serious leadership we need. That is why we will oppose this bill tonight.

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