Boris Johnson faces backlash over plans to change Brexit deal

Bloomberg September 9 | Updated on September 09, 2020 Published on September 09, 2020

Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson   -  REUTERS

The govt proposes to pull back from the agreement related to Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from within his own ruling Conservative Party after the UK government said it plans to break international law over Brexit.

As trade talks with the European Union continue, the Prime Minister will take questions in Parliament and is likely to be put under pressure by senior Tories who fear the move will undermine trust in the UK around the world.

The controversy was sparked by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis who said on Tuesday that the government’s plan to re-write parts of the Brexit divorce deal it signed with the EU would be a breach of international law in a limited and specific way.

That admission caused astonishment and anger among the influential rank-and-file Tories who believe the abandonment of a legally-binding treaty would hurt future attempts to secure international agreements.

“How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked in Parliament.

The UK needs to secure a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020 or its economy will be saddled with additional costs and disruption when tariffs, quotas and customs checks are reimposed.

Roger Gale, another Conservative member of Parliament, said on Twitter that Britain’s actions will be regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith and that honour is not for sale or barter. Another senior Tory MP expressed his shock, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Lewis’s statement as a massive problem, adding it wasn’t the right way to complete Brexit.

Negotiating ploy?

Yet another, also critical of Johnson’s handling of the situation, suggested it could be a negotiating tactic by Johnson’s office in 10 Downing Street. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he described the move as part of the necessary crisis before a deal is reached.

Threatening international treaties is a very risky move, said David Henig, Director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy. It is made worse by a government threatening to overturn a treaty that it agreed only eight months previously and fought a general election on the basis of being the right deal for the UK.

The government’s proposal to change sections of the Brexit divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland has also triggered deep concern among officials. The UK’s most senior government lawyer, Jonathan Jones, resigned on Tuesday, while Rowena Collins Rice, Director General at the Attorney Generals office, also left her post.

The departure of Jones shows something pretty rotten is happening in the government, Charles Falconer, Labours shadow attorney general, told Times Radio.

Damage Control

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to comment on the reasons for Jones’s departure. Collins Rice, whose departure had been in the works for several months, is taking up another public appointment, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The controversy facing Johnson centers on the Brexit divorce deals requirement that Northern Ireland continues to be bound by the EU’s customs rules after Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on December 31.

That effectively established a border in the Irish Sea, with businesses in Northern Ireland facing the prospect of having to file customs paperwork if they want to move goods to the rest of the UK.

In a bill due to be published on Wednesday, the government plans to give ministers the powers to waive the requirement for such paperwork, should the issue not be settled by joint talks with the EU this year. It also plans to give ministers the power to determine unilaterally which goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be liable to pay tariffs in the event the U.K. and EU fail to reach a trade accord.

Irish Fury

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, branded the UK’s plan as hugely problematic and illegal, telling lawmakers in Dublin that he was gravely concerned the UK is trying to undermine the deal it signed.

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Published on September 09, 2020
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