As you will have seen, parliament has been debating the Internal Market Bill.
I should start by saying I think majority of the Bill is sensible and necessary for a United Kingdom single market when we are no longer subject to EU rules.
My issue is with the clauses that take what was agreed less than a year ago about the primacy of the withdrawal agreement over domestic law and reverse it. They are not a clarification, but a contradiction of that agreement.
Doing that would be breaking international law. I agree that, because of our dualist system of law, it is possible to break international law without automatically breaking domestic law. It is also true that Parliament is sovereign, and it can choose to break international law if it wants to, but the fact that an international law breach is not a domestic law breach, and that it is not unconstitutional, does not make it a good idea.
The blatant and unilateral breach of a treaty commitment could only be justified in the most extreme and persuasive circumstances. The government says such circumstances are those in which no ongoing trade agreement is made with the EU and where the joint committee established under the withdrawal agreement to resolve problems of interpretation is unable to do so, leaving the UK in an impossible position, but the possibility of reaching no trade agreement and of deadlock in the joint committee were both foreseeable, and yet when the withdrawal agreement was signed, and again when it was legislated for, the government did not say that the risk of the outcomes they rely upon now undermined the deal on offer. They said then, and say now, that this was a good deal.
So what has changed?
That leads to the argument that, unexpectedly, the EU is now adopting an interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol so outrageous, and so far from a rational reading of that protocol, that we could not have seen it coming and could not possibly accept it, leaving no option but to abrogate, ourselves, the relevant parts of the protocol.
However, the withdrawal agreement sets out a mechanism for resolving disputes about interpretation, involving binding independent arbitration and penalties, including the suspension of obligations under the agreement. If the EU’s new approach is so far from what the agreement intended, I do not see why the government would not succeed using that mechanism.
So I accept the government has a problem, but it has not persuaded me its proposed solution is either necessary or right, and breaking international law will come with a high cost.
International law matters. The rules of behaviour that should bind nation states underpin much of what the United Kingdom says on the world stage, on subjects like the Skripal poisonings, the treatment of the Uighur people or the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We speak often, and rightly so, of the Rules Based International Order as the foundation of freedom and justice in the world, and of our own security. The rules referred to are rules of international law. If we break them ourselves, we weaken our authority to make the arguments the world’s most vulnerable need us to make. It is also not in our long term diplomatic or commercial interests to erode the reputation we have earned for the strength of our word and our respect for the rule of law, a reputation we will rely on more than ever when the Brexit process is complete.
I fear that if parliament were to give ministers the powers they are asking for and they were to be exercised, we would all come to regret it.
That is why I could not vote for the bill at second reading containing these clauses as they stand but, as I said at the outset, the majority of the bill contains measures I support. I therefore abstained on the second reading vote and look forward to considering amendments to the clauses I am concerned about.