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UK Government vows to press on with Brexit bill despite Lords defeat

Anti-Brexit demonstrator holds European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament, in central London.

By Shaun Connolly and Sam Blewett, PA Political Staff

Key parts of Boris Johnson’s controversial Brexit legislation have been rejected by the Lords.

Peers moved to strip controversial clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill that would enable ministers to break international laws.

The Lords voted 433 to 165, majority 268, to reject law-breaking powers after fierce criticism by Tory former leader Michael Howard and Tory ex-chancellor Ken Clarke.

The UK Government immediately responded by insisting it would not back down.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “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.

“We will re-table 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.

“We expect the House of Lords to recognise that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure they continue to have unfettered access to the UK under all circumstances.”

Peers went on to inflict a further defeat on the Government by 407 votes to 148, majority 259, stripping out a further contentious clause relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

All other controversial provisions were removed without votes.

Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Angela Smith said: “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 move came after Tory former prime minister Sir John Major said the Government’s plan to override key elements of the Brexit deal hurt Britain’s global reputation.

Sir John condemned Mr Johnson’s position, insisting it was “unprecedented in all our history – and for good reason”.

Sir John said the UK Internal Market Bill, which ministers have admitted will breach international law, had “damaged our reputation around the world”.

Asked about the Lords votes, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told BBC2’s Newsnight the UK Government’s stance had “undermined trust”.

He said: “It is not a surprise to us as an Irish government that the Internal Market Bill, or part five of the Internal Market Bill, is essentially being rejected by the House of Lords.

“And, it’s as controversial a piece of legislation as it seems, within the UK as it is outside of the UK.”

Mr Coveney added: “Effectively, what the Prime Minister is proposing to do with this legislation is to deliberately threaten to break international law by passing domestic legislation which effectively says if the EU doesn’t give us what we want in the negotiations around the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, and, in particular, the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland, well, then we are going to legislate to give British ministers the powers to do what they want to do anyway."

“And that has been a tactic that really has undermined trust in these negotiations.”

The Prime Minister’s stance could risk creating early tensions with US president-elect Joe Biden.

Mr Biden warned during his successful campaign against Donald Trump that a trade deal with the US was “contingent” on the prevention of a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Mr Johnson has insisted that the Bill is designed to “protect and uphold the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in Northern Ireland”.

Mr Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, has warned the agreement cannot “become a casualty of Brexit”.

Meanwhile, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was in London on Monday to resume trade talks with Downing Street counterpart Lord Frost.

Mr Barnier tweeted that he was “happy to be back” in the capital, with the two teams “redoubling our efforts” for an agreement.

He listed the three major sticking points – governance, the level playing field and fishing policies – as the three “keys to unlock a deal”.

Time is fast running out to have a deal in place by the end of the transition period on December 31, with businesses fearing the high trade tariffs they would face in the absence of an agreement.

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