Two former prime ministers, Tony Blair and Sir John Major, have jointly accused Boris Johnson of “shaming” the UK by proposing legislation - the so-called Internal Market Bill - that they say undermines his own EU withdrawal arrangements, namely the Irish peace process and ongoing trade talks.
The politicians, who admitted they both opposed Brexit but have accepted that it is now in full swing, wrote in The Sunday Times that “this way of negotiating, with reason cast aside in pursuit of ideology and cavalier bombast posing as serious diplomacy, is irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice”.
They warned that the bill, which is up for a second round of talks in the Commons on Monday, raises “questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal - crucial though they are”.
“It questions the very integrity of our nation”, the duo charged.
"As the world looks on aghast at the UK - the word of which was once accepted as inviolable - this government's action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation”, the ex-prime ministers’ op-ed reads.
Blair and Sir John, who said that when they opposed Brexit in 2016, unlike the majority of voters in the referendum, they were dismissed as "out of touch and out of time has-beens”, took separate aim at Johnson personally.
"We have become so inured to the unending Brexit saga of misinformation and misdirection that the hollow claims, empty promises and emptier threats have lost their power to shock", they wrote.
"Yet what is being proposed now is shocking. How can it be compatible with the codes of conduct that bind ministers, law officers and civil servants deliberately to break treaty obligations?” Blair and Major queried, stressing that there is no way to save credibility as a “global Britain” if commitments are ignored “the moment we sign them”.
They suggested that the government is seeking to do so under the pretext that breaking international law is necessary to "save the Good Friday agreement", which has granted peace in Northern Ireland for more than two decades and completely altered the ties between the UK and the neighbouring independent Republic of Ireland.
"We disagree. The government's action does not protect the Good Friday agreement - it imperils it”, concluded Major and Blair, the latter of whom fuelled mistrust back in 2003, when the Iraq War was being started by the US, which he gave his full support to.
Starmer: Resumption of Old Spats
However, it is arguably not this criticism that is of concern to Prime Minister Johnson, but opposition to the bill from Conservative and Labour MPs.
Sir Keir Starmer, for instance, wrote in The Sunday Telegraph accusing the prime minister of reigniting old rows and urging him: "We should be getting on with defeating this virus, not banging on about Europe".
"Get on with Brexit and defeat the virus. That should be the government's mantra. Labour is prepared to play its part in making that happen”. He pledged his party’s support for the Internal Market Bill should the government fix “the substantial cross-party concerns" raised about it.
He conceded, though, that the decision to propose a bill last week that “would break an international agreement” Britain signed months ago is wrong.
"Many former leaders of the Conservative Party have spoken out to say so. And I suspect the prime minister agrees with them and knows his actions are counterproductive”, Starmer noted.
He stressed the strong odds that Britain will negotiate “the best trade deals” with its partners, adding, however, that Johnson “risks holding global Britain back”.
Johnson Warns Against Tory Revolt
Boris Johnson the other day appealed for Tory unity as some MPs were reported to be readying to rise against his plans, and addressed EU warnings that the UK could face legal action if it does not ditch the controversial elements of the Internal Market Bill by the end of the month. The prime minister detailed his stance, writing in The Telegraph:
“We are now hearing that unless we agree to the EU’s terms, the EU will use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea. We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI”.
The prime minister added that the original Withdrawal Agreement was hastily drawn up in October 2019 while “negotiating with one hand tied behind our back” in a desperate attempt to reach a deal before the fast-approaching deadline.
Johnson brought up a Canada-style agreement with the EU, deemed by many as the most viable and desirable option for Britain, which would rule out almost all tariffs in British-EU trade ties, arguing that failure to back the bill would dismiss the Canada-style option altogether.
“Let’s remove this danger to the very fabric of the United Kingdom. Let’s make the EU take their threats off the table. And let’s get this bill through, back up our negotiators, and protect our country”, Johnson called.
Speaking at a virtual meeting with around 250 Conservative backbenchers on Friday, the now embattled prime minister, who has zeroed in on trade talks with the EU in recent months, urged MPs not to break ranks and warned them against a return to the “miserable, squabbling days of last autumn”.
Johnson called for "overwhelming support" for the bill, describing it as "absolutely vital" to "prevent a foreign or international body from having the power to break up our country”. However, the widespread reports about a division in the Tory ranks over the bill have raised the chances of a showdown over the issue during a scheduled Commons meeting on Monday.