Boris Johnson has set himself on collision course with US president-elect Joe Biden after he vowed to overturn a massive defeat in the House of Lords and press ahead with a Brexit bill that breaks international law.
Peers voted by 433 to 165 on Monday night to remove clauses in the internal market bill that would allow ministers to overrule parts of the EU withdrawal agreement. It was one of the heaviest government defeats in the upper house in recent years.
Mr Biden has warned that the bill could endanger a delicate post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland; he has told Mr Johnson he should forget any prospect of a UK-US trade deal if he destabilised the peace process.
But Mr Johnson immediately signalled he would press ahead with the legislation and overturn the Lords decision when the bill returns to the House of Commons in December — unless the UK agrees a free trade deal with the EU in the meantime.
“We are disappointed that the House of Lords has voted to remove clauses from the UK internal market bill, which was backed in the House of Commons by 340 votes to 256 and delivers on a clear Conservative manifesto commitment,” a government spokesman said.
“We will retable these clauses when the bill returns to the Commons. We’ve been consistently clear that the clauses represent a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market and the huge gains of the peace process.”
But Labour’s leader in the Lords, Angela Smith, said ignoring the will of the upper house “would underestimate the genuine and serious concerns across the UK and beyond about ministers putting themselves above and beyond the rule of law”.
Mr Johnson’s stance was denounced by former Tory leaders on Monday. John Major, the former Tory prime minister, said the bill — which ministers admit will breach international law — was “unprecedented in all our history”.
Meanwhile, Michael Howard, the Eurosceptic former Conservative leader, criticised ministers who he said had claimed circumstances made it “expedient” to break international law. “Isn’t that the excuse of lawbreakers everywhere?” he said.
Mr Johnson argues the controversial clauses in the bill are needed as “a safety net” in case the EU interprets the withdrawal treaty in such a way that it imposes a hard trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
But the prime minister’s critics claim that unpicking the Northern Ireland protocol — a painstakingly crafted text — would shift a proposed trade border and any attendant checks from the Irish Sea to the island of Ireland.
Mr Biden has deprecated any move by Mr Johnson that might undermine the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
He tweeted in September: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
Mr Biden’s emotional commitment to upholding an open Irish border was made clear in January when, asked by a BBC reporter to give a comment, he replied: “BBC? I’m Irish.”
Although Mr Johnson has welcomed Mr Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, he has not urged Donald Trump to concede defeat, nor has he yet spoken to the winner.
“It’s not for me to offer commentary on it but clearly I want to congratulate president-elect Biden,” he said at a Downing Street press conference.
The hope in London and Brussels is that the row over the internal market bill can be settled by both sides agreeing a free trade agreement in the coming days. However, talks — which resumed in London on Monday — remain deadlocked.
Mr Johnson’s hand was strengthened on Monday when Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party, and Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister and vice-president of Sinn Féin, called for “goodwill and pragmatism” on both sides to avoid a hard border in the Irish Sea.
In a letter to Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president, the Northern Ireland leaders urged Brussels not to impose health checks overzealously on foods and plants arriving in the region from the rest of the UK.
They warned of the risk to “the continuity of the supply of existing food and other products to our market” and noted the Northern Ireland protocol as saying it “should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, and David Frost, his UK counterpart, are scheduled to continue talks on a trade deal until Thursday, although the expectation is they will extend them until the end of the week.
One British official said it was unclear whether outstanding disputes on issues including fishing rights and a so-called level playing field to ensure fair business competition would be resolved, but that the “endgame” could happen next week.
In Brussels, some EU officials are exploring the possibility of extending the talks, with the European Parliament looking at the possibility of holding a late-December virtual meeting to sign off an EU-UK trade deal.
Currently, the parliament’s last scheduled plenary meeting of 2020 is in the week of December 14, but alternative dates are being looked at as late as the week of December 28.
There are limits to how much extra time can be freed up for negotiators if the deal is still be processed and ratified by the EU this year, however.
One EU official suggested that pushing the plenary vote as late into December as possible would allow negotiations to continue to the end of November, but not much beyond that.
Although Mr Johnson’s allies insist that the election of Mr Biden has not changed the political dynamic of the trade deal talks, it has added a new level of risk for the prime minister if he walks away without an agreement.
It would leave Britain entering 2021 with a broken relationship with the EU and facing the anger of the incoming US president, who regards Brexit as a serious geopolitical mistake.
And if Mr Johnson were to insist on driving through his internal market bill, it could leave him branded as an international lawbreaker in a year when Britain is trying to build global co-operation as host of both the G7 and the UN COP 26 climate change summit.