Johnson’s Law-Breaking Brexit Plan Faces Defeat, Ministers Fear

(Bloomberg) — Boris Johnson is braced for defeat in Parliament over his controversial plan to re-write the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a blow that could throw negotiations with the European Union into chaos at a critical time.

a statue of Boris Johnson in a suit standing in front of a building

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Boris Johnson

The draft legislation has been attacked by all five of Johnson’s living predecessors as U.K. prime minister because it breaches international law by reneging on parts of the Brexit deal he signed with the European Union. Two senior legal officials have already quit the government in protest.

Johnson eventually bowed to pressure from rebels in his own party and gave Parliament a veto on whether to use the most controversial powers in the legislation.

The Internal Market Bill is expected to clear the House of Commons on Tuesday — but it will then move to the House of Lords, where Johnson’s Conservative Party doesn’t have a majority. Ministers expect the bill to be savaged there, according to people familiar with the matter.

Defeat for Johnson would deprive him of negotiating leverage in the final stages of trade negotiations with the bloc. The bill had been seen as an attempt by the U.K. to get better terms from the EU by threatening the status of Northern Ireland. Without a deal, the U.K. will crash out of the bloc’s single market and customs union on Dec. 31, saddling businesses and consumers with additional costs and disruption.

How Johnson Is Risking U.K.’s Reputation, Trade Deals: QuickTake

The nuclear option would be for Johnson’s opponents in the House of Lords to reject the bill entirely — voting it down at the first opportunity during the “second reading” stage. That is viewed as unlikely but not impossible by government officials.

The prime minister’s team expect the Lords to re-write or strip out the most contentious sections relating to trade in Northern Ireland, which ministers have conceded would breach international law.

If the Lords defeat the government on these clauses, the bill would be sent back to the Commons, where elected legislators could overturn the changes. But a lengthy period of so-called ping-pong between the Lords and the Commons could ultimately block the bill and stop it becoming law by the Brexit deadline.

One crucial factor in deciding the fate of the bill will be the state of play in the Brexit trade talks, people with knowledge of both the government and opposition suggested.

Some lawmakers on both sides expect Johnson to drop the most contentious parts of the bill on Northern Ireland if he strikes a trade deal with the EU before the legislation is due to be debated in the Lords. That’s because a trade deal would mean those clauses would no longer be needed.

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