LONDON — Boris Johnson suffered a crushing defeat in the House of Lords over his plans to breach international law on Brexit.
Peers in the U.K.’s upper chamber voted on two sets of amendments to strip the Internal Market Bill of controversial clauses that would have undermined the Withdrawal Agreement the prime minister signed in 2019. In the first vote, the government was defeated by 433 to 165; in the second, by 407 to 148.
The plans would have allowed the government to override the Northern Ireland Protocol by handing ministers power to determine customs regulations on a unilateral basis and to determine when U.K. state aid rules might undercut EU firms, rather than having this decided by a joint U.K.-EU committee.
Ministers insisted the clauses were needed to ensure goods can be sent to Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit, after claiming the EU could have imposed a blockade on the nation.
But lords from across the political and Brexit divide rejected the government case. Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, said: “I want the independent, sovereign state that I voted for to be a country which holds its head up high in the world, that keeps its word, that upholds the rule of law and which honors its treaty obligations.”
Conservative peer Anne McIntosh branded the clauses “offensive and obnoxious.”
Following the vote, Angela Smith, the Labour leader in the Lords, 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 U.K. and beyond about ministers putting themselves above and beyond the rule of law.”
The bill is set to return to the Commons in December, when MPs will have the chance to reinsert the offending clauses.
A government spokesperson said ministers would put the clauses forward again. “We’ve been consistently clear that the clauses represent a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the U.K.’s internal market and the huge gains of the peace process,” the spokesperson said.
Doing so would not just cause a political storm in Britain but would set the government on a collision course with the incoming U.S. administration. President-elect Joe Biden warned in September that the Internal Market Bill puts the Good Friday Agreement peace settlement at risk and suggested there would be no trade deal between London and Washington as long as the bill stands.
But if a trade deal with the EU is struck before the bill returns to the Commons, it could render the row an irrelevance.
Elsewhere in a speech on Monday night, Conservative former Prime Minister John Major said the government had damaged Britain’s reputation with the draft legislation, and said putting ministers above the law would have a “corrosive” impact.
Meanwhile, leaders in Northern Ireland have written to the European Commission to warn that checks on plant and animal goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland once the Brexit transition period ends could impact supermarkets.
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein said in the letter first reported by RTE and seen by POLITICO, that the apparent threat to food supplies was “unacceptable.”