Ed Miliband – 2020 Speech on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

The speech made by Ed Miliband, the Labour MP for Doncaster North, in the House of Commons on 14 September 2020.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:

“this House notes that the UK has left the EU; calls on the Government to get on with negotiating a trade deal with the EU; recognises that legislation is required to ensure the smooth, effective working of the internal market across the UK; but declines to give a Second Reading to the Internal Market Bill because this Bill undermines the Withdrawal Agreement already agreed by Parliament, re-opens discussion about the Northern Ireland Protocol that has already been settled, breaches international law, undermines the devolution settlements and would tarnish the UK’s global reputation as a law-abiding nation and the UK’s ability to enforce other international trade deals and protect jobs and the economy.”

There are two questions at the heart of the Bill and of why we will oppose it tonight. First, how do we get an internal market after 1 January within the UK while upholding the devolution settlements, which have been a vital part of our constitution for two decades and are essential to our Union? Secondly, will our country abide by the rule of law—a rules-based international order, for which we are famous around the world and have always stood up?

Those are not small questions. They go to the heart of who we are as a country and the character of this Government. Let me start with the first question. An internal market is vital for trade and jobs at home, but also for our ability to strike trade deals. It is the responsibility of the UK Government at Westminster to safeguard that market and legislate. On that, we agree with the Government. But that must be done while understanding that the governance of our country has changed in the last two decades. Two decades of devolution settlements reflect a decision that we would share power across our four nations, including devolving key powers over issues such as animal welfare, food safety and aspects of environmental legislation. We should legislate for an internal market, but in a way that respects the role and voice of devolved Governments in setting those standards. That is to respect the devolution settlement. From across the UK, we have heard that the Government are not doing that; that they want to legislate with a blunderbuss approach that does not do that and simply says that the lowest standard in one Parliament must become the standard for all, with no proper voice for devolved Governments. If the Westminster Government decided to lower standards, there would be no voice for the devolved nations, even in a discussion about those standards because the Government have decided not to legislate for common frameworks.

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)

The right hon. Gentleman is getting to the nub of the matter. We have Joint Ministerial Committees, and huge progress had been made in the last few months on agreeing frameworks that would allow us to do exactly what the right hon. Gentleman asked for. Is not the right way to proceed through frameworks in agreement with the devolved Administrations, not the race to the bottom that we get with the Bill?

Edward Miliband

The right hon. Gentleman and I come from different positions. I want to respect the devolution settlements that uphold the Union and he has a different point of view, but on this matter we should be legislating for common frameworks. That would be the way to respect devolution. I do not know whether the Prime Minister even understands the legislation—I know he has many things on his plate—but I am sorry to say that on this issue, the Government’s approach has been cavalier. Since 2017, common frameworks have developed and the Government could have legislated for that. We will seek to do that during the Bill’s passage.

The issues were prefigured in the White Paper. Since then, we have an even bigger question to confront. Let me say at the outset that we want the smoothest trade across our United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. There is a way to resolve those issues in the Joint Committee set up for that purpose. I have to say that, from a man who said he wanted to get Brexit done and won an election on it, the Bill gets Brexit undone by overturning key aspects of the protocol that were agreed.

I have been part of many issues of contention across the Dispatch Box, but I never thought that respecting international law would be a matter of disagreement in my lifetime. As Leader of the Opposition, I stood opposite the Prime Minister’s predecessor David Cameron for five years. I do not know why the Prime Minister is rolling his eyes. I disagreed with David Cameron profoundly on many issues, but I could never have imagined him coming along and saying, “We are going to legislate to break international law” on an agreement that we had signed as a country less than a year earlier. Yet that is what the Bill does, in the Government’s own words.

I want to address three questions at the heart of the matter. Is it right to threaten to break the law in the way the Government propose? Is it necessary to do so? Will it help our country? The answer to each question is no. Let us remember the context and the principle. If there is one thing that we are known for around the world, it is the rule of law. This is the country of Magna Carta; the country that is known for being the mother of all Parliaments; and the country that, out of the darkness of the second world war, helped found the United Nations. Our global reputation for rule making, not rule breaking, is one of the reasons that we are so respected around the world. When people think of Britain, they think of the rule of law. Despite what the Prime Minister said in his speech, let us be clear that this is not an argument about remain versus leave. It is an argument about right versus wrong.

The Brexiteer and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lamont, says that the Bill is impossible to defend. The Brexiteer and former Attorney General who helped to negotiate and sign off this deal as Attorney General ​says that the Bill is “unconscionable”. And the Brexiteer Lord Howard—the Prime Minister’s former boss—said this:

“I never thought it was a thing I’d hear a British minister, far less a Conservative minister, say, which is that the government was going to invite parliament to act in breach of international law…We have a reputation for probity, for upholding the rule of law, and it’s a reputation that is very precious and ought to be safeguarded, and I am afraid it was severely damaged…by the bill”.

Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the EU has been negotiating in good faith?

Edward Miliband

It is very interesting that the hon. Gentleman should say that because a report came out today from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is chaired by a Conservative Member. This is what the report says and this is my answer to him:

“These talks began in March and continued throughout the summer in a spirit of good faith and mutual respect for the delicate arrangements in Northern Ireland.”

That is what the Conservative-controlled Select Committee says about this issue.

The Prime Minister has said many times that he wants to bring unity to the country during his premiership. I therefore congratulate him on having, in just one short year, united his five predecessors. Unfortunately, their point of agreement is that he is trashing the reputation of this country and trashing the reputation of his office. Why are these five former Prime Ministers so united on this point? It is because they know that our moral authority in the world comes from our commitment to the rule of law and keeping our word. We rightly condemn China when it rides roughshod over the treaties dictating the future of Hong Kong. We say it signed them in good faith, that it is going back on its word and that it cannot be trusted. And his defence? “Don’t worry; I can’t be trusted either.” What will China say to us from now on? What will it throw back at us—that we, too, do not keep to international law?

Andrea Jenkyns

Does the Labour party keep its word to the British voters?

Edward Miliband

Actually, yes we do, and I will tell the hon. Lady why. We respect the fact that the Conservative party, under this Prime Minister, won the election. He got his mandate to deliver his Brexit deal: the thing that he said was—I am sure she recalls this because it was probably on her leaflets—“oven ready”. It is not me who is coming along and saying it is half-baked; it is him. He is saying, “The deal that I signed and agreed is actually—what’s the word? Ambiguous. Problematic.” I will get to this later in my speech, but I wonder whether he actually read the deal in the first place.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is making an extremely good speech. Would he perhaps tell the House who on earth might have signed this terrible deal with so many ambiguities less than nine months ago?

Edward Miliband

My hon. Friend makes an important point; I do believe it was the Prime Minister who signed the deal.​
In fairness to the Prime Minister, I want to deal with each of the arguments that the Government have made in the last few days for this action. It is quite hard to keep count of the different arguments—you know you are losing the argument when you keep making lots of different arguments—but I want to give the House the top five. First, let us deal with the argument about blockades, which made its first outing in The Telegraph on Saturday through the Prime Minister, and obviously it made a big appearance today.

I have to say, I did not like the ramping up of the rhetoric from the European Union on Thursday, following the Prime Minister’s publication of this Bill, but even by the standards of the Prime Minister, this is as ridiculous an argument as I have ever heard. Let me let me explain to him why—the point was very well made by the former Attorney General this morning. This is what article 16 of the protocol says:

“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.”

In other words, let us just say that this threat somehow materialised—and by the way, I believe that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials would have to implement it, making it even more absurd that it would happen. If the threat materialised, it is not overturning the protocol that is the right thing to do; it is upholding the protocol, as article 16 says. But do not take my word for it, Madam Deputy Speaker; take the word of the former Attorney General—who definitely read the protocol—who wrote this morning:

“There are clear and lawful responses available to Her Majesty’s government”.

As if that was not enough, there is also an irony here—the Prime Minister tried to slip this in; I do not know whether the House noticed—which is that this Bill does precisely nothing to address the issue of the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is about two issues where the Government are going to override international law: exit declarations, Northern Ireland to GB, and the definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there is another part of the Bill that I have not noticed that will deal with this supposed threat of blockade, I will very happily give way to him. I am sure he has read it; I am sure he knows it in detail, because he is a details man. Come on, tell us: what clause protects against the threat, which he says he is worried about, to GB-to-Northern Ireland exports? I give way to him. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman cannot give way unless he is asked to.

Edward Miliband

There you have it: he didn’t read the protocol, he hasn’t read the Bill, he doesn’t know his stuff.

Let us deal with the second bogus argument. The Prime Minister claimed on Wednesday that it was necessary to protect the Good Friday agreement. The first outing for that argument was on Wednesday, at Prime Minister’s questions. I have to say to him, I would rather trust the authors of the Good Friday agreement than the Prime Minister, who has prominent members of the Government ​who opposed the agreement at the time. However, this is what John Major and Tony Blair wrote—[Interruption.] They don’t like John Major. They said that the Bill

“puts the Good Friday agreement at risk”—

[Interruption]—this is very serious—

“because it negates the predictability, political stability and legal clarity that are integral to the delicate balance between the north and south of Ireland that is at the core of the peace process.”

These are very important words from two former Prime Ministers, both of whom helped to win us peace in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister may not want to believe them, but he will, I hope, believe himself—[Laughter]—maybe not—because this is what he said about the Northern Ireland protocol:

“there are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland at the border that deserve particular respect and sensitivity, and that is what they have received in the deal.”

It is

“a great deal for Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 578-579.]

I do not understand this. He signed the deal. It is his deal. It is the deal that he said would protect the people of Northern Ireland. I have to say to him, this is not just legislative hooliganism on any issue; it is on one of the most sensitive issues of all. I think we should take the word of two former Prime Ministers of this country who helped to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)

Before the shadow spokesman lectures the Prime Minister about reading documentation or starts lecturing us about the Good Friday agreement, does he not recognise, first of all, that the Good Friday agreement talks about the principle of consent to change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, which is what this protocol does? The Good Friday agreement has within it a mechanism to safeguard the minorities in Northern Ireland through a cross-community vote, which again the protocol removed. So before he starts talking about the threats to the Good Friday agreement, does he not recognise that the protocol was a threat to it in the first place?

Edward Miliband

The right hon. Gentleman did not like the protocol at all. He would rather have not had the protocol. He and I just have a disagreement on this issue. I believe it was necessary to make special arrangements for Northern Ireland, or for the UK to be in the EU customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland. That is why the Prime Minister came along and said the protocol was the right thing to do.

Let me deal with the third excuse we heard. This is the “It was all a bit of a rush” excuse. As the Prime Minister said in his article, times were “torrid” and there were “serious misunderstandings”. He tries to pretend that this is some new issue, but they have been warned for months about the way the protocol would work. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is sitting in his place, was warned at the Select Committee in March and was asked about these issues. The Business Secretary was written to by the House of Lords Committee in April.

Let us just get this straight for a minute, because I think it is important to take a step back. The Prime Minister is coming to the House to tell us today that his flagship achievement—the deal he told us was a triumph, ​the deal he said was oven-ready, the deal on which he fought and won the general election—is now contradictory and ambiguous. What incompetence. What failure of governance. How dare he try to blame everyone else? I say to the Prime Minister that this time he cannot blame the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), he cannot blame John Major, he cannot blame the judges, he cannot blame the civil servants, he cannot sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There is only one person responsible for it and that is him. This is his deal. It is his mess. It is his failure. For the first time in his life, it is time to take responsibility. It is time to ’fess up: either he was not straight with the country about the deal in the first place, or he did not understand it.

A competent Government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions they could not live with. If such a Government somehow missed the point but woke up later, they would do what any competent business would do after it realised it could not live with the terms of a contract: they would negotiate a way out in good faith. That is why this is all so unnecessary. There is a mechanism designed for exactly this purpose in the agreement: the Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol. What did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say on 11 March at the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union? He will recall that he was asked about state aid. He said:

“the effective working of the protocol is a matter for the Joint Committee to resolve.”

The remaining issues to which the Bill speaks are not insignificant, but nor are they insurmountable, and that is the right way to pursue them, not an attempt at illegality.

Let me come back to the excuses. Fourthly, on Sunday, there was the Justice Secretary’s “the fire alarm” defence: “We don’t want to have to do this, but we might have to.” I want to be clear with the House about something very, very important about a decision to pass the Bill. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), but I want to make this point. The very act of passing the Bill is itself a breach of international law. It would be wrong for hon. and right hon. Members on either side of the House to be under any illusions about that as they decide which Lobby to go into tonight. If we pass the Bill, even if there is a nod and a wink from the Prime Minister to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, we equip the Government with the power to break the law. That in itself is a breach of the Northern Ireland protocol and therefore a breach of international law.

Sir Robert Neill

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Member’s formulation and I understand much of what he says. However, an Act passed by this House only becomes law when it comes into force. He will be right, I submit, to say that as soon as any of these provisions came into force we would potentially breach international law. That is not quite the same thing, as I think he would fairly concede.

Edward Miliband

That is not a risk we are going to take.

So the fire alarm defence simply does not work. The last defence was floated as a trial balloon, one might say, by the Northern Ireland Secretary last Tuesday, I believe. He said it was a breach of the law in a “specific and limited way.” That really is a new way of thinking ​about legal questions. It now turns out that breaking the law specifically and in a limited way is a reasonable defence for this Government. We have all heard of self-defence, the alibi defence, the innocence defence; now we have the Johnson defence: you can break the law, but in a specific and limited way.

Think about the grave context we face. The Home Secretary is in today’s newspapers warning everyone, “You must abide by the law.” On this, she is absolutely right. She says,

“I know that, as part of our national effort, the law-abiding majority will stick to these new rules. But there will be a small minority who do not”.

You couldn’t make it up. What she does not say in the article, but what we now know about this Government, is that the Johnson defence means something very specific: there is one rule for the British public and another rule for this Government. Pioneered by Cummings, implemented by Johnson—that is the Johnson rule.

This is the wrong thing to do. It is not necessary and it is deeply damaging to this country. Let us think about the impact on our country in the negotiations. The Government’s hope is that it will make a deal more likely, but that relies on the notion that reneging on a deal we made less than a year ago with the party we are negotiating with now will make that party more likely to trust us, not less. Think about our everyday lives: suppose we made an agreement with someone a year ago and we were seeking to have another negotiation with them; if we had unilaterally reneged on the first deal we made, would it make them more likely to trust us, or less likely? Obviously, it would make them less likely to trust us.

We know the risks. I very much hope the Prime Minister gets a deal. As a country, we absolutely need a deal. We know the risks of no deal if this strategy goes wrong. The Prime Minister said last week that no deal is somehow “a good outcome”. He is wrong. I hear all the time from businesses—I am sure the Business Secretary, who is in his place, does too—that are deeply worried about the danger of no deal. I know what the Prime Minister thinks about the views of business, thanks to his four-letter rant, but this is what businesses have to say. Nissan says there could be no guarantee about its Sunderland plant if there were tariffs on UK to EU trade. Ford says that no deal would be disastrous. The NFU says it would be catastrophic for British farming—indeed, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the same thing. We are in the biggest economic crisis for 300 years, the biggest public health crisis for 100 years. No deal is not some game; it is about the livelihoods of millions of people across our country.

What about the prized trade deal with the United States? I know the Prime Minister thinks he has a friend in President Trump, but even he must recognise the necessity of being able to deal with both sides. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said:

“The UK must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the EU… If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”

This is the signal that we—the country known for the rule of law, the country that abides by the law, the ​country that founded international law—are sending to our friends and allies around the world. That is why we cannot support the Bill.

The Government must go back, remove the provisions breaking international law and ensure that the Bill works in a way that respects the devolution settlements. That is what a responsible, competent and law-abiding Government would do. This is a pivotal moment to determine the future of our country—who we are and how we operate. In shaping that future, we have to stand up for the traditions that matter: our commitment to the rule of law. The Bill speaks of a Government and a Prime Minister who are casual, not to say cavalier and reckless, about the gravity of the issues confronting them. The Prime Minister should be focusing on securing a Brexit deal, not breaking international law and risking no deal. He is cavalier on international law and cavalier on our traditions. This is not the serious leadership we need, and it is why we will oppose the Bill tonight.