Upholding the rule of law is your ‘starter for ten’ when it comes to being a credible government. If you are not able or prepared to defend that fundamental principle, it’s hard to see how you can demand compliance of others, whether that be the general public or international partners and adversaries.
That is why the furore over Boris Johnston’s Internal Market Bill is so significant. By reneging on commitments written into law through the EU Withdrawal Agreement, even if only in “limited and specific ways”, the Bill risks trashing the reputation not just of this government but the UK as a whole. At a time when striking trade deals must be a priority, such behaviour will inevitably make that process more difficult by undermining trust amongst those with whom we are negotiating.
The Prime Minister argues that this breaking of international treaty obligations is necessary to maintain the “territorial integrity” of the UK. Yet the Withdrawal Agreement is a creature of Mr Johnston’s own making. Less than a year ago, Mr Johnston was heralding his Brexit deal and the Withdrawal Agreement as the last word in statecraft. Those who pointed out the inconvenient truth that this agreement with the EU simply transferred the threat of a customs border from the island or Ireland to one in the Irish Sea were dismissed as nay-sayers and Remoaners.
So it was that the bold Boris went to the polls last December proclaiming that he had an ‘oven ready deal’ and just needed the public’s endorsement to “get Brexit done”. That deal, which parliament was denied time to properly scrutinise, turns out to be half-baked and Mr Johnston is busy trying to slice off the bits he now finds unpalatable.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, it is not just his opponents or supporters of EU membership that are highlighting the dangers posed by his Internal Market Bill. Former Tory leader, Michael Howard, and Chancellor, Norman Lamont boast impeccable Brexiteer credentials, yet both have denounced the bill as reckless, while threatening to block its passage through the Lords.
Five former Prime Ministers have condemned the Bill, the head of the UK Government’s Legal Department has resigned in protest and the former Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, who was the government’s legal adviser when the Withdrawal Agreement was drawn up, warned that passing the Bill would do “unconscionable damage” to the UK’s international reputation. Mr Cox also pointed out that the “unpalatable” implications of the agreement were known to Mr Johnston at the time and that there are “lawful ways” for the government to deal with its concerns over state aid and movement of goods to and from Northern Ireland.
Yet there is little sign of the Prime Minister backing down. Safeguarding the internal market within the UK after Brexit is crucial, not least to our interests here in Orkney, but the manner in which Mr Johnston’s government is going about achieving it risks extensive collateral damage.
The EU has already threatened sanctions, while Mr Johnston has been put on notice that his actions could torpedo any prospect of a future trade deal with the United States. Closer to home, the Prime Minister appears untroubled by the fact that he is doing more than anyone to further the cause of a united Ireland and a break-up of the UK. That would be some legacy for the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.
As if the constitutional implications and potential damage to our reputation internationally were not serious enough, the Bill also appears to put Ministers above the law. Under its provisions, regulations on state aid or customs declarations would have legal effect notwithstanding their incompatibility with “any rule of international or domestic law whatsoever”. So good luck trying to exercise your right to challenge ministerial decisions in the courts.
All of which means that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will almost certainly withhold consent to the Bill as it relates to devolved matters. It has to be hoped, however, that MPs and peers can act as a restraint on the government by amending if not blocking the Bill before any more damage is done.