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UK's contested Internal Market Bill that ‘BREAKS international law’ passes first vote in parliament

UK's contested Internal Market Bill that ‘BREAKS international law’ passes first vote in parliament
A trade law that would allow the British government to bypass parts of its Brexit deal with the EU has cleared its first hurdle in parliament, over opposition from critics who insist the bill violates international law.

MPs voted 340 to 263 on Monday to advance the Internal Markets bill for a second reading, securing a majority of 77 in the government’s favor and overcoming objections from Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and even some rebel Tories.

During some five hours of debate ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the law’s more controversial provisions – which, among other things, would empower ministers to override EU regulations on trade and government aid – arguing the bill is needed to guarantee the UK’s “economic and political integrity.” He insisted the EU had made unfair demands to “exert leverage” in Brexit trade talks, including threats to block food exports, and said the Internal Markets bill would prevent European negotiators from taking an “extreme and unreasonable” stance on the withdrawal agreement.

A number of MPs across the political spectrum have sounded alarms about the bill, including Conservative lawmakers, most taking aim at its disregard for international law.

“Breaking international law is a step that should never be taken lightly,” wrote Tory MP and former chancellor Sajid Javid in a statement, adding that he could not support “pre-emptively reneging” on the withdrawal agreement and that he would not be supporting the bill on its second reading on Tuesday.

Conservative MPs Sir Charles Walker, Imran Ahmad Khan and Andrew Mitchell joined Javid in opposing the measure, while the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford urged other Tories to vote against the government as “a matter of principle.”

An amendment introduced by Labour leader Keir Starmer would have stopped the bill from progressing to a second reading, arguing that it “undermines the Withdrawal Agreement already agreed by Parliament,” however the provision was defeated 349 to 213, despite a number of Tory abstentions and one Conservative ‘yes’ vote. With Starmer in self-quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus, Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband stood in for the party leader during Monday’s vote, blasting Johnson for attempting to violate the withdrawal agreement he himself signed.

“Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it,” Miliband said. “Because a competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with.”

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While the language of the bill does state it would “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent,” the prime minister has stated that an additional vote would be required before the law's powers could be invoked, apparently hoping to assure opponents and hold back a rebellion within his own party.

“The passing of this bill does not constitute the exercise of these powers. If they were ever needed, ministers would return to this House with a statutory instrument on which a vote would be held,” Johnson said.

The current version of the bill does not contain such a provision, however Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Commons justice committee, has tabled an amendment that would require MPs to approve any use of its powers. The Neill amendment is set for a vote on Tuesday, and up to 30 Tory MPs are believed to be ready to back it, according to the Independent.

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