Theresa May has delivered a stinging rebuke to Boris Johnson’s plan to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol ahead of a Commons vote.
The former prime minister told fellow MPs that she could not support the controversial legislation – which she said would be illegal, fail to achieve its aims, and diminish Britain’s standing in the world.
In an excoriating take-down of the plans, she even drew on her own experience as an embattled PM to suggest that European leaders may now be doubtful about her successor Mr Johnson‘s future in Downing Street.
Her criticism added to the concerns expressed by fellow Tory Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, who said the plan threatened to wreck Britain’s global reputation and prompt a trade war.
But it means some goods being exported from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland are subject to customs checks, creating problems for some businesses and upsetting unionists – resulting in political deadlock as the DUP refuses to re-enter power-sharing.
The UK government says it wants to renegotiate the deal, but accuses Brussels of intransigence and claims that it has no choice but to introduce legislation.
It contains measures to remove checks on goods and animal and plant products exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
‘Is it worth negotiating with these people?’
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told MPs preparing to vote on the legislation on Monday that the political situation cannot be allowed to drift and that the plan was “both legal and necessary”.
But Mrs May set out a series of objections, including regarding the claim that the UK was legally able to override the protocol because of “necessity”.
That was wrong, the former PM said, because other legal options such as continuing to negotiate and to invoke Article 16 – unilaterally suspending parts of the protocol temporarily – remain available.
She added that key aims of the legislation – bringing the DUP back into government and encouraging Brussels to negotiate – were also doubtful.
Mrs May said that there was no commitment from the DUP to returning to the executive as a result of the bill
She added that when she, as prime minister, had faced a bruising confidence vote just like Mr Johnson, EU negotiators started to ask themselves: “Well, is it really worth negotiating with these people in government because will they actually be there in any period of time?”
She added: “Also, actually, I suspect they are saying to themselves why should they negotiate in detail with a government that shows itself willing to sign an agreement, claim it is a victory, and then try to tear part of it up in less than three years’ time.”
Truss and May clash over ‘patriot’ status
Ms Truss said she was supporting the measures as she was a “patriot”, but Mrs May said: “As a patriot, I would not want to do anything that would diminish this country in the eyes of the world.
“I have to say to the government, this bill is not, in my view, legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims, and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world, and I cannot support it.”
Earlier, Mr Mitchell said he had an “immense amount of sympathy” with the government, with the EU “not being particularly constructive”.
But he added: “Many of us are extremely concerned that the bill brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty, it trashes our international reputation, it threatens a trade war at a time when our economy is flat, and it puts us at odds with our most important ally.”
The last point was a reference to disquiet in the US about the government’s move.
PM defends government’s plan
Meanwhile, the prime minister has said the legislation could be enacted “very fast” if backed in parliament.
He told reporters at the G7 summit in Germany: “You have got one tradition, one community, that feels that things really aren’t working in a way that they like or understand, you’ve got unnecessary barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“All we are saying is you can get rid of those whilst not in any way endangering the EU single market.”
Brussels has launched legal action against the UK in retaliation to the proposed legislation, which would effectively ditch key parts of the deal signed by Mr Johnson and the EU in 2019.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic has indicated further measures could follow if the UK pressed ahead with the bill.