UK Government suffers heavy defeats over controversial ‘law-breaking’ Brexit powers
By Trevor Mason, Nick Lester and George Ryan
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suffered two major defeats over his controversial Brexit legislation, as peers stripped out powers that would enable ministers to break international law.
Conservative former leader Lord Howard of Lympne led the calls for the Prime Minister to “think again” and remove the contentious parts of the UK Internal Market Bill, warning that the Government is using the language of “law breakers” everywhere.
Cross-party amendments were tabled to strike out clauses linked to the most contentious part of the Bill, namely part five, which gives ministers the power to breach the Brexit divorce deal – known as the Withdrawal Agreement – brokered with Brussels last year.
The House of Lords voted 433 to 165, majority 268, to remove clause 42 – one of the disputed sections – and clause 43 was removed without a vote.
They then voted 407 votes to 148, majority 259 to remove clause 44, relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
All the other controversial clauses were removed without votes.
The defeats are thought to be among the biggest suffered by the Government in the Lords for several years.
Ministers have insisted powers to override the Withdrawal Agreement are needed to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but critics argue the powers are not necessary.
Baroness Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, said in a statement: “I am sure some in Government will initially react with bravado and try to dismiss tonight’s historic votes in the Lords.
“To do so, however, would underestimate the genuine and serious concerns across the UK and beyond about ministers putting themselves above and beyond the rule of law.
“The Government should see sense, accept the removal of these offending clauses, and start to rebuild our international reputation.”
The division list showed 44 Conservative peers rebelled to vote to remove clause 42 from the Bill.
They included Lord Howard, ex-Brexit minister Lord Bridges of Headley and former chief whip Lord Young of Cookham.
Those opposing clause 42 of the Bill also included nine bishops, 115 independent crossbenchers, 156 Labour peers and 81 Liberal Democrats.
A further 38 Conservative peers rebelled to oppose clause 44.
During the debate, Independent crossbench peer Lord Judge – a former head of the judiciary – advised the House of Lords should be “neither complicit nor supine” and should vote against clauses in the Bill.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, raised concerns that the Bill “fails to take into account the sensitivities and complexities of Northern Ireland and could have unintended and serious consequences for peace and reconciliation”.
Tory Lord Cormack said the law-breaking clauses in the Bill must go and threatened to vote against them “again and again” if necessary.
But party colleague Baroness Noakes argued the Bill was a “responsible approach by the Government to protect the interests of the UK but particularly the interests of Northern Ireland”.
Concluding the committee stage debate, Cabinet Office minister Lord True said it is “entirely proper and constitutional” for Parliament to legislate “in a manner inconsistent with international law”.
He added: “That is an age-old principle underpinning our constitution.”
The Bill will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords before it returns to the Commons, where the Government has said it plans to retable the clauses removed by peers.