Boris Johnson is to plead with fractious Tory MPs to back him in his bust-up with Brussels, amid Downing Street fears of a backbench rebellion against measures which ministers admit break international law.
In a Friday evening video conference call, the prime minister will try to answer deep anxieties over provisions in his UK Internal Market Bill which have been condemned by three former prime ministers and provoked Brussels to threaten legal action.
Senior and normally loyal Tories have vowed to vote against the government when the bill is rushed through the Commons next week, and while privately some were doubtful of mustering the 40 or more rebels needed to block the legislation it then faces likely defeat in the House of Lords.
Mr Johnson decision to give UK ministers powers to override the provisions of his own Brexit divorce agreement on tariffs, state aid and customs procedures for Northern Ireland led the European Commission to issue an ultimatum of the end of September to back down or put talks on a trade deal at risk.
But neither side has yet threatened to collapse the trade talks, which are due to resume in Brussels next week. The UK side is understood to be ready to keep talking even if Brussels is suing the UK for breach of an international treaty, but continues to demand “realism” from EU negotiators on issues like state aid and fisheries.
On fisheries, a senior UK negotiating official insisted that “huge change” was still needed from Brussels in order to get an agreement, which Mr Johnson insists must be concluded by 15 October.
Labour’s former PM Gordon Brown today described the threat to break International law as “a huge act of self harm” and said he feared Mr Johnson was leading the UK into “battle with Europe for years ahead” which would damage national prosperity. His comments followed warnings from fellow ex-premiers Sir John Major and Theresa May that the UK risks forfeiting the “trust” necessary to strike future deals with countries around the world.
An amendment tabled by Tory former minister Sir Bob Neill and backed by Ms May’s deputy prime minister Damian Green would place a parliamentary brake on provisions overriding the withdrawal agreement, by requiring a separate Commons vote to approve the date on which they would take effect.
But some rebels wanted to strike out any suggestion that the UK was ready to go back on a treaty negotiated and signed by the prime minister and hailed by him less than a year ago as a “great” and “oven-ready” deal.
Veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale told The Independent that there was “a great deal of anger” among Tory MPs, who were picking up “very hostile” responses to the PM’s plans from Conservative voters.
It’s a matter of principle,” said Sir Roger. If you sign an agreement, you honour that agreement. This country has had a long and proud tradition of playing it straight.
It comes down to the difference between right and wrong and I’m not sure that Downing Street knows the difference any more. Even it is just sabre-rattling, it is a very dangerous game because it is damaging our reputation internationally.
Whilst we are beginning to get discussions of substance of some issues, big important areas remain unresolved. We will carry on talking in Brussels next week.
On subsidies we are asking that the EU agree with us what they have agreed with so many others in this area. Despite their insistence to the contrary, on fisheries their position is still a long a way from the huge change we need to get an agreement.
London is furious at Mr Barnier’s public confirmation in comments following Thursday’s talks that Brussels may withhold “third party” status from the UK after the end of the Brexit transition in January because of “uncertainties” about standards of animal health and sanitation once it stops following EU rules.
The move would prevent the export of £5 billion worth of food products a year to areas covered by the EU’s sanitary regulations, which crucially include Northern Ireland. It was this threat which prompted Mr Johnson’s explosive intervention this week.