Former prime minister Theresa May has told the government she will not support its controversial Brexit legislation – although Boris Johnson’s concessions mean he is likely to escape a larger Conservative rebellion.
Mrs May warned ministers they were “acting recklessly and irresponsibly” and could do “untold damage” to the UK’s reputation around the world by pushing ahead with plans to break international law.
Speaking as MPs debated the government’s UK Internal Market Bill on Monday, Mrs May attacked those parts of the legislation that would allow ministers to override the Withdrawal Agreement signed with the EU.
“I cannot emphasise how concerned I am that a Conservative government is willing to go back on its word, to break an international agreement signed in good faith and to break international law,” she said.
The government has admitted the proposed legislation, if passed, would break international law – but stressed it is “critical” to ensuring the unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, and to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
It has accused the EU of threatening “explicitly” in Brexit trade talks that Great Britain would not be able to move food to Northern Ireland.
The prime minister has faced censure at Westminster, in Brussels and from US presidential candidate Joe Biden over the plan to breach international law.
Mr Johnson last week acted to prevent a growing revolt among Tory MPs over the bill by partially climbing down and promising to give MPs another vote before any of the powers in the legislation are used.
And senior Tory backbencher Sir Bob Neill – who had led a group of Conservative rebels but worked with the government to find a compromise – said he and others could now support the legislation following the prime minister’s action.
He said: “It does enable some of us who otherwise would not have been able to support these clauses to enable them to proceed on the understanding that there is a specific parliamentary lock that the bad faith on the counter-party’s side must be proven to the House before these matters were actually brought into operation, which of course all of us hope would never be the case.”
However, Mrs May was not won over by the government’s concessions.
“Frankly, my view is to the outside world it makes no difference as to whether a decision to break international law is taken by a minister or by this parliament – it is still a decision to break international law,” she said.
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The former prime minister added: “This is a country that upholds the rule of law – it’s one of the things that makes us great, it’s one of our characteristics, we uphold the rule of law around the world.
“The Conservative Party upholds the rule of law, it’s one of our values, one of our characteristics, yet we’re being asked to tear up that principle and throw away that value.
“And why? I can only see on the face of it, it’s because the government didn’t really understand what it was signing up to when it signed the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Mrs May did not vote when the UK Internal Market Bill cleared its first parliamentary hurdle last week, but MPs will vote on the proposed legislation again before it passes to the House of Lords.
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