Boris Johnson – 2020 Statement on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

The statement made by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 14 September 2020.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time—and that this House act to preserve one of the crucial achievements of the past three centuries, namely our British ability to trade freely across the whole of these islands.

The creation of our United Kingdom by the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1801 was not simply a political event, but an act of conscious economic integration that laid the foundations for the world’s first industrial revolution and the prosperity we enjoy today. When other countries in Europe stayed divided, we joined our fortunes together and allowed the invisible hand of the market to move Cornish pasties to Scotland, Scottish beef to Wales, Welsh beef to England, and Devonshire clotted cream to Northern Ireland or wherever else it might be enjoyed.

When we chose to join the EU back in 1973, we also thereby decided that the EU treaties should serve as the legal guarantor of these freedoms. Now that we have left the EU and the transition period is about to elapse, we need the armature of our law once again to preserve the arrangements on which so many jobs and livelihoods depend. That is the fundamental purpose of this Bill, which should be welcomed by everyone who cares about the sovereignty and integrity of our United Kingdom.

We shall provide the legal certainty relied upon by every business in our country, including, of course, in Northern Ireland. The manifesto on which this Government were elected last year promised business in Northern Ireland

“unfettered access to the rest of the UK”.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

I am listening carefully to what the Prime Minister is saying, but why did one of his own distinguished Members describe his policy this week as “Nixonian Madman Theory”? Is the Prime Minister not deeply worried that his policies and approach are being compared to those of the disgraced former US President Richard Nixon, rather than someone like Winston Churchill?

The Prime Minister

Actually, I think that this Bill is essential for guaranteeing the economic and political integrity of the United Kingdom and simply sets out to achieve what the people of this country voted for when they supported our election manifesto: not only unfettered access from NI to GB and from GB to NI, but also—I quote from the manifesto—to

“maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I will not.

The Bill is designed to honour that pledge and maintain those freedoms. When we renegotiated our withdrawal agreement from the EU, we struck a careful balance to reflect Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom, while preserving an open border with Ireland, with the express and paramount aim of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the peace process. In good faith, we accepted certain obligations in the Northern Ireland protocol in order to give our European friends the assurances they sought on the integrity of their single market, while avoiding any change to the border on the island of Ireland. We agreed to conduct some light-touch processes on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in case they were transferred to the EU.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) rose—

The Prime Minister

I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who knows a great deal about the subject.

Jim Shannon

This is a very important debate, as the Prime Minister and I know and as everyone in the House knows. Does he accept that the EU’s determination to use Northern Ireland as a stick to beat the UK with as punishment for daring to leave an institution that had no respect or concern for our people has been underlined by the behaviour of MEPs, and indeed of some in this House, as they seek again, against the will of the majority of people, to stop Brexit instead of doing the honourable thing: respecting the vote and the recent general election validation, taking care of the UK and putting our people first, as the Prime Minister has said he will do? This legislation is a way of doing that.

The Prime Minister

The intention of the Bill is clearly to stop any such use of the stick against this country, and that is what it does. It is a protection, it is a safety net, it is an insurance policy, and it is a very sensible measure.

In a spirit of reasonableness, we are conducting these checks in accordance with our obligations. We are creating the sanitary and phytosanitary processes required under the protocol and spending hundreds of millions of pounds on helping traders. Under this finely balanced arrangement, our EU friends agreed that Northern Ireland—this is a crucial point—would remain part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom, able to benefit from free trade deals with other countries, which we are now beginning to strike. It ensures that the majority of goods not at risk of travelling to the EU—and that is the majority of goods going from GB to Northern Ireland—do not have to pay tariffs.

But the details of this intricate deal and the obvious tensions between some of its provisions can only be resolved with a basic minimum of common sense and good will from all sides. I regret to have to tell the House that in recent months the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths, using the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that goes well beyond common sense simply to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free trade agreement. To take the most glaring example, the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to its satisfaction, it might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU. It gets even worse, because under this protocol, that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Our interlocutors on the other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agricultural transports within our own country.

Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister agree that there is no greater obligation for MPs than to our voters, that the British people were told that no deal is better than a bad deal and we would prosper without a deal, and that given that the EU refuses to negotiate in good faith, we have no alternative but to legislate to protect our internal market?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Absurd and self-defeating as that action would be, even as we debate this matter, the EU has not taken that particular revolver off the table. I hope that it will do so and that we can reach a Canada-style free trade agreement as well.

It is such an extraordinary threat, and it seems so incredible that the EU could do this, that we are not taking powers in this Bill to neutralise that threat, but we obviously reserve the right to do so if these threats persist, because I am afraid that they reveal the spirit in which some of our friends are currently minded to conduct these negotiations. It goes to what m’learned friends would call the intention of some of those involved in the talks. I think the mens rea—

Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I give way to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Sir Robert Neill

I never object to another promotion.

I have listened carefully to what the Prime Minister says, but does he accept that were our interlocutors in the EU to behave in such an egregious fashion, which would clearly be objectionable and unacceptable to us, there is already provision under the withdrawal agreement for an arbitrary arrangement to be put in place? Were we to take reserve powers, does he accept that those reserve powers should be brought into force only as a final backstop if we have, in good faith, tried to act under the withdrawal agreement and are then frustrated? The timing under which they come into force is very important for our reputation as upholders of the rule of law.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. He knows a great deal about this matter, and it is of great importance that we go through the legal procedures, as we will. As things stand, however, in addition to the potential blockade on agricultural goods, there are other avenues that the EU could explore if it is determined to interpret the protocol in absurd ways, and if it fails to negotiate in good faith. We must now take a package of protective powers in the Bill, and subsequently.

For example, there is the question of tariffs in the Irish sea. When we signed the protocol, we accepted that goods “at risk” of going from Great Britain into the EU via Northern Ireland should pay the EU tariff as they crossed the Irish sea—we accepted that—but that any goods staying within Northern Ireland would not do so. The protocol created a joint committee to identify, with the EU, which goods were at risk of going into Ireland. That sensible process was one achievement of our agreement, and our view is that that forum remains the best way of solving that question.

I am afraid that some in the EU are now relying on legal defaults to argue that every good is “at risk”, and therefore liable for tariffs. That would mean tariffs that could get as high as 90% by value on Scottish beef going to Northern Ireland, and moving not from Stranraer to Dublin but from Stranraer to Belfast within our United Kingdom. There would be tariffs of potentially more than 61% on Welsh lamb heading from Anglesey to Antrim, and of potentially more than 100% on clotted cream moving from Torridge—to pick a Devonshire town at random—to Larne. That is unreasonable and plainly against the spirit of that protocol.

The EU is threatening to carve tariff borders across our own country, to divide our land, to change the basic facts about the economic geography of the United Kingdom and, egregiously, to ride roughshod over its own commitment under article 4 of the protocol, whereby

“Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom.”

We cannot have a situation where the boundaries of our country could be dictated by a foreign power or international organisation. No British Prime Minister, no Government, and no Parliament could ever accept such an imposition.

Miss Sarah Dines (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

How will my right hon. Friend ensure that Derbyshire Dales lamb, grown in our country, can be enjoyed by our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland, which is part of our country?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend very much. The best way for us all to be sure that such lamb can be sold throughout the whole United Kingdom is to vote for this Bill, and to protect the economic integrity of the UK. [Interruption.] To answer the questions that are being shouted at me from a sedentary position, last year we signed the withdrawal agreement in the belief, which I still hold, that the EU would be reasonable. After everything that has recently happened, we must consider the alternative. We asked for reasonableness, common sense, and balance, and we still hope to achieve that through the joint committee process, in which we will always persevere, no matter what the provocation.

Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth and Southam) (Con)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I want to ask him, if I may, about the ministerial code. When I was the Attorney General in the previous Government, I was happy to confirm that the ministerial code obliged Ministers to comply with international as well as domestic law. This Bill will give Ministers overt authority to break international law. Has the position on the ministerial code changed?

The Prime Minister

No, not in the least. My right hon. and learned Friend can consult the Attorney General’s position on that. After all, what this Bill is simply seeking to do is insure and protect this country against the EU’s proven willingness—that is the crucial point—to use this delicately balanced protocol in ways for which it was never intended.

The Bill includes our first step to protect our country against such a contingency by creating a legal safety net taking powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of our United Kingdom. I understand how some people will feel unease over the use of these powers, and I share that sentiment. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I have absolutely no desire to use these measures. They are an insurance policy, and if we reach agreement with our European friends, which I still believe is possible, they will never be invoked. Of course, it is the case that the passing of this Bill does not constitute the exercising of these powers.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Hang on!

The Prime Minister

If the powers were ever needed, Ministers would return to this House with a statutory instrument on which a vote—perhaps this is the question to which the hon. Gentleman is awaiting an answer—would be held. We would simultaneously pursue every possible redress—to get back to the point I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill)—under international law, as provided for in the protocol.

In addition to our steps in domestic law, if we had to make clear that we believed the EU was engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith, as required and provided for under the withdrawal agreement and the Vienna convention on the law of treaties, we would seek an arbitration panel and consider safeguards under article 16 of the protocol.

It is a question not of if we meet our obligations, but of how we fulfil them. We must do so in a way that satisfies the fundamental purpose of the protocol, the Belfast Good Friday agreement and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. We will work with the EU on all of these issues. Even if we have to use these powers, we will continue to engage with the joint committee so that any dispute is resolved as quickly and as amicably as possible, reconciling the integrity of the EU single market with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory.

What we cannot do now is tolerate a situation where our EU counterparts seriously believe that they have the power to break up our country. If that is what hon. Members on the Opposition Benches want them to have, then I am afraid that they are grievously mistaken. That illusion must be decently dispatched, and that is why these reserve powers are enshrined in the Bill.

In addition, the Bill will help deliver the single biggest transfer of powers to the devolved Administrations since their creation, covering a total of 160 different policy areas. Each devolved Administration will also be fully and equally involved in the oversight of the UK’s internal market through a new independent body, the Office for the Internal Market. The Bill will maintain our common cause of high standards, where we already go beyond the EU in areas ranging from health and safety to consumer and environmental protections.

Chris Bryant

May I take the Prime Minister back to the question asked by the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright)? It seems to me quintessential to the way we do our business that Ministers abide by the law. Indeed, the Justice Secretary is required by law to swear that he will uphold the rule of law. How, therefore, can the Prime Minister seriously advance a piece of legislation that says:

“regulations…are not to be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of any incompatibility or inconsistency with relevant international or domestic law”.

That is just gobbledegook, isn’t it? It is complete and utter nonsense.

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I made it very clear that we do not relish the prospect of having to use these powers at all. We hope very much, as I said, that the EU will be reasonable, but any democratically elected Government of this country—indeed, I would say any MP representing the people of this country—must be obliged to do whatever he or she can to uphold the territorial integrity of this country. That is what we are doing. Furthermore, instead of UK taxpayers’ money being disbursed by the EU, this Bill, which is an excellent Bill, will allow the Government to invest billions of pounds across the whole of the UK to level up.

A year ago, this Parliament was deadlocked, exasperating the British people by its failure to fulfil their democratic wishes and, worst of all, by undermining our negotiators, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) will recall. Effectively, Parliament told the EU that if it played hardball, this House would oblige it by weakening our country’s hand and legally forbid our representatives from walking away from the negotiating table. I hope that this House will never make that mistake again. Instead, let us seize the opportunity presented by this Bill and send a message of unity and resolve. Let us say together to our European friends that we want a great future relationship and a fantastic free trade deal.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)

The Prime Minister will remember that we have some history in this regard. I did not want us to leave with no agreement last year, and we fell out over that. But he was true to his word and we had an agreement.

We said in our manifesto:

“We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK”.

Is it not the truth of the matter that the way to do that is either through this Bill or by agreeing the free trade agreement—the Canada-style deal—that the EU said was on the table and of which the Prime Minister said when he came into office, “Okay, they now seem to have stepped back from that”?

I thank the Prime Minister for saying that tonight is difficult for some of us, but this is an important piece of legislation. Will he assure me that it is still his policy and the policy of his Government to secure that FTA with the EU that it said it wanted and that we know we want?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for the spirit in which he asked his question and made that important point. He is absolutely right to focus on where we are now in our talks on the free trade agreement. It is by passing the Bill tonight and in subsequent days that we will make the possibility of that great free trade agreement more real and get it done sooner.

Therefore, with this Bill we will expedite a free trade agreement not only with our European friends and partners, but with friends and partners around the world; we will support jobs and growth throughout the whole United Kingdom; we will back our negotiators in Brussels; and, above all, we will protect the territorial integrity of the UK and the peace process in Northern Ireland. I urge the House to support the Bill and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) rightly said, to get back to the business of securing a free trade agreement with our closest neighbours that we would all wish to see. I commend the Bill to the House.