Boris Johnson on Monday infuriated former Conservative leaders and risked a major row with US president-elect Joe Biden by vowing to press ahead with Brexit legislation that breaks international law.
Former Tory prime minister John Major said in a speech that the move, which would override parts of Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty relating to Northern Ireland, was “unprecedented in all our history”.
Meanwhile Eurosceptic former Conservative leader Michael Howard criticised ministers whom he said had claimed circumstances made it “expedient” to break international law. “Isn’t that the excuse of law breakers everywhere?” he said.
He was speaking as the House of Lords prepared to vote down key parts of the prime minister’s internal market bill, which would give ministers the right to ignore elements of the Brexit deal agreed last year.
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, warning that it would torpedo any hopes of a UK-US trade deal.
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.
Peers were expected to vote on Monday to remove clauses in the internal market bill that would give ministers the right to override the Brexit treaty.
Mr Johnson has made it clear that, if necessary, he will reinstate them when the bill returns to the House of Commons in December, a point reinforced by environment secretary George Eustice, who said the contentious clauses were needed to provide “legal clarity, legal certainty”.
The hope in London and Brussels is that the row can be avoided 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 overzealously impose health checks 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 “end game” 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 COP26 climate change summit.