By Hallum Cowell | Deputy Editor
The UK’s Internal Market Bill passed its first test in the House of Commons after five hours of debate on Tuesday, September 15. The bill was backed by 340 votes in favour to 263 opposed.
Two Conservative MPs voted against the bill while another 30 abstained, a clear sign that this bill is causing a rift within the Conservative Party.
The bill has caused much controversy across the political divide and is a keen reminder that the debate surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) is far from over.
What is the Internal Market Bill?
Gair Rhydd covered the Internal Market Bill in detail when it was first announced on September 9.
The bill allows the UK Government to change aspects of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which was passed in 2019 to prepare for the UK’s departure from the EU on December 31 2020.
Controversially, under section 46 of the Internal Market Bill, the UK Government in Westminster would be able to fund projects in devolved nations, as a replacement for the EU structural funds. This potentially means that Westminster could bypass devolved governments’ decisions entirely and fund projects devolved governments have refused to.
Article four of the Withdrawal Agreement states that the bill takes precedent above UK domestic law which means that any attempt to overrule this previous bill would break UK law.
Additionally, the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified as part of a treaty with the European Union and as such any attempt to change it would also break international law.
Five hours of debate
The first round of voting on the Internal Market Bill was preceded by five hours of heated debate in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new bill would ensure the “economic and political integrity” of the UK and accused the EU of unfair demands during negotiation over the UK’s departure from the political and economic union, arguing they were trying to “exert leverage”. The Prime Minister also described the bill as a “legal safety net”.
Johnson added: “I understand how some people will feel unease over the use of these powers and I share that sentiment myself.
“I have absolutely no desire to use these measures, they are an insurance policy.”
Across the floor, former Labour leader and current Shadow Cabinet member Ed Miliband said: “from a man who said he wanted to get Brexit done, and won an election on it, this bill gets Brexit undone.”
“If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there’s another part of this bill that I haven’t noticed, that will deal with this supposed threat of blockade I’ll give way to him… I’m sure he’s read it.”
After the Prime Minister declined to answer Miliband’s challenge, the former Labour leader said: “There you have it. He didn’t read the protocol”.
Is Johnson facing rebellion?
The controversy over the Internal Market Bill has not been limited to the opposition parties within the Commons, and it seems a growing group within the Conservative Party are unhappy with the proposed bill. .
The day after the bill was passed, September 16, the UK Government’s Advocate General for Scotland, Lord Keen resigned. In his resignation letter Lord Keen wrote: “I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what I consider to be my obligations as a Law Officer with your policy intentions with respect to the [UK Internal Market] bill”.
A number of former Prime Ministers have also spoken out against the bill, including Tony Blair, John Major and, Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
A faction of around 30 Conservative MPs were planning to vote on an amendment to the Internal Market Bill which would see MPs given a final say over any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
However, at 6pm on September 16 the Prime Minister promised a senior committee of backbenchers that “an extra layer of Parliamentary oversight” will be given to MPs. It seems this promise has been made in hopes that this amendment will be dropped.
This could be enough to placate the rebels. Their de facto leader, Sir Bob Neil, wrote in the I newspaper that “taking a sledgehammer to the entire bill would be the wrong approach”.
“There is a great deal of good in it, with 51 of its 54 clauses fairly innocuous for the large majority.”
It seems the Conservative rebellion against the Internal Market Bill is limited to this issue and as such they may now fall in line with the party and vote for the bill in future Parliamentary debate.
How have the EU reacted?
Negotiations with the EU are still ongoing in preparation for the UK’s departure on December 31. If a deal is not agreed by October 15, the UK has indicated that they will withdraw from negotiations and leave the EU without a deal.
The EU published a statement that their goal was still “the timely and full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Neither the EU nor the UK can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret, disregard or disapply the agreement.”
The statement goes on to say that the Internal Market Bill in its current form would be a “clear breach” of the EU’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
What next for the bill?
The bill will now go back and forth between the House of Commons and House of Lords as amendments are voted on and recommended.
The controversy over the bill will likely continue for many months to come. Despite this it is almost certain that, if the government wants the bill to go into law, it will, largely thanks to their large 80 MP majority. It would take a large scale Conservative revolt, or the government to rescind the proposed bill, for it to not become law.twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.