In Depth

How Brexit conflict turned the clock back a year for Boris Johnson

A sense of deja vu has set in over Westminster as yet another EU row triggers war within the Commons

MPs are divided over Brexit treaty changes, UK relations with the EU have reached a new low and the prime minister is facing a backbench rebellion. 

It’s all beginning to feel a bit like October 2019, with Boris Johnson confronted with the same challenges all over again.

If the return from recess has felt like stepping into a time machine for the PM, he is not alone, with Politico’s Alex Wickham describing the week in politics as “a Brexit double take”. So is Johnson living in a Brexit Groundhog Day?

‘The funeral pyre’

The issue of EU membership has become a “funeral pyre” for Tory leaders over the past four decades, bringing down the governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May.

And with his plan to row back on elements of the EU withdrawal agreement triggering anger across Westminster, Johnson is battling to avoid becoming the next Conservative leader to fall on the European sword.

“Up to 30 Tory MPs” are planning a revolt over his bid to overrule parts of the Northern Ireland protocol in the treaty, with peers in the Lords also planning to reject the legislation over fears that it “would damage Britain’s global standing”, The Times reports. 

Former Tory leader Michael Howard, a vocal Brexiteer, told Times Radio that “our reputation for probity and the rule of law” is at threat. 

“To hear a minister say at the dispatch box you are passing legislation in breach of international law is a very sad day - I never dreamt I’d hear a minister, still less a Conservative minister, say such a thing,” he added.

Cabinet ministers have been deployed to defend the move, insisting the withdrawal agreement would be “hugely harmful” to the Irish peace process.

Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi told Times Radio that “in the unlikely scenario” that Britain exits the bloc without a deal, “we can’t allow existing provisions to harm Northern Ireland or the Good Friday Agreement”.

But the intervention of Johnson’ allies in the cabinet have done nothing to quell “growing concern on the Conservative back benches over breaching the treaty”, says The Telegraph.

New faces, same problems

Tory MP Oliver Letwin was Johnson’s biggest headache last year, but this time around the anti-Johnson rebels have a new frontman: Justice Select Committee chair Bob Neill.

Back in October, Letwin put forward an amendment to withhold approval of Johnson’s Brexit deal until the legislation to enact it was passed. The BBC’s parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy wrote at the time that the “cunningly-crafted” add-on could be voted for “by MPs who want a deal, but don’t trust this one, and don’t trust the government”.

Now, Johnson has another Letwin-style problem, after Neill tabled an amendment to the Internal Markets Bill “in an effort to create a parliamentary veto on overriding the UK-EU divorce deal”, The Guardian says.

Former immigration minister Damian Green and ex-solicitor general Oliver Heald are among those publically backing Neill in the Commons. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, are also opposing the PM’s plan. 

But as The Guardian notes, “the initiative would need backing from dozens of MPs in a parliamentary party that has tilted heavily towards a firm pro-Brexit position since the general election”.

However, just as Letwin had a backing band, Neill claims to have the wider support needed to pass the amendment, telling Times Radio: “I wouldn’t be pressing this issue if it was only a hobby horse of mine.”

‘Once bitten, twice shy’

If the ghost of Letwin is haunting the PM this week, it may be with good reason. 

Neill is “proving a thorn in the government’s side” with his amendment, which in the words of HuffPost’s executive editor Paul Waugh, “looks for all the world like a wrecking ball”. But Waugh adds that “looks can be deceptive”.

“It’s perfectly possible that this could be a clever way for the government to avoid the row about the UK’s reputation and integrity on the rule of law, giving ministers a ladder to climb down,” Waugh writes. In other words, Neill could have given Johnson an escape plan following the frosty reception to the withdrawal treaty backtracking. 

This reading of events is hinted at by Sky News’ deputy political editor, Sam Coates, who tweets that “legal experts warn this amendment might be a Trojan horse: they believe it has flaws and loopholes the gvt [government] can exploit”. 

“The problem is apparently the veto is voted on after the point when the government has annulled the law so potentially after the ministers have already achieved their goal,” Coates writes. “So some believe only way to defeat the gvt is to vote down this bit of the bill.”

A government source told The Times that unlike MPs who voted against the Brexit deal last year, those who vote against the government over the Internal Market Bill would not have the whip removed - lending weight to the suggestion that a climbdown is on its way. 

But after Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” was underminded by scheming backbenchers a year ago, Downing Street will be alert to the threat of another embarrassing U-turn.

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