Here’s what you need to know about Boris Johnson’s controversial Internal Market Bill

Boris Johnson returns to Downing Street following the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on September 15, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)Boris Johnson returns to Downing Street following the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on September 15, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson returns to Downing Street following the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on September 15, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

After a considerable and often impassioned debate, MPs voted on 14 September to back Boris Johnson’s proposed Internal Market Bill by 340 votes to 263.

Though the controversial proposals will still need to pass several further rounds of votes, including in the House of Lords where serious opposition is expected, last night’s vote means the legislation has passed the first major hurdle on the way to becoming law.

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While the government claims the bill is necessary to protect Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom if trade negotiations break down, the bill has attracted major criticism, with critics from across the political spectrum saying it would put the UK in breach of international law.

What is the Internal Market Bill?

According to the government, the Internal Market Bill aims to allow goods and services to flow freely throughout the four nations of the United Kingdom.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the Internal Market Bill will deliver a “vital legal safety net” which will allow the government to “take the necessary steps to ensure the integrity of the UK’s internal market”.

The bill aims to enshrine “mutual recognition and non-discrimination” in terms of trade between the four nations of the United Kingdom, making sure any goods and services which can be sold in one part of the UK can be sold in any other, and that no nation’s government can introduce regulations which would favour goods or services in one part of the UK over another.

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So what’s the problem?

According to its critics, the main issue with the Internal Market Bill is that it would override parts of the withdrawal agreement, which was agreed by Boris Johnson last year as part of his “oven-ready Brexit deal”.

The bill would give ministers the power to make regulations relating to customs procedures for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as state aid.

It would also allow ministers to create regulations which would not be consistent with the UK’s obligations under the Withdrawal agreement.

Specifically, it will override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, which recognises the issues in achieving frictionless trade across the UK as well as throughout the island of Ireland, in line with the Good Friday Agreement.

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Ultimately it seeks to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland, which will remain part of the EU single market, and Northern Ireland, which will fall under the UK’s internal market.

Does the bill break international law?

According to the government itself, yes.

Speaking in the commons last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs that the Internal Market Bill breaks international law in a “specific and limited way”.

Firstly, the UK would be in breach of part of the Withdrawal Agreement by making it possible for ministers to create the regulations.

However, the real problems would occur if ministers actually exercised these powers, and in doing so actively breached the state aid and customs provisions of the Northern Ireland protocol.

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Even prior to last night’s vote, the European Union threatened legal action, and accused the UK of “seriously damaging” the trust between the two sides.

Ursulla Von-der Leyen, head of the EU Council, tweeted: "Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the withdrawal agreement”.

Who voted for and against it?

The bill passed easily last night, thanks to the Conservative party’s 80-seat majority, despite a number of abstentions from the Conservative benches.

While a number of high-profile Tory MPs voiced concerns about the bill, and some abstained on last night’s vote, only two backbenchers rebelled against the government to actually vote against the bill last night.

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They were Andrew Percy MP, of Brigg and Goole, and Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet.

Some high profile Tory MPs, including former chancellor and home secretary Sajid Javid, have said that they will not be able to support the bill if it is not amended.

Who has spoken out against it?

Speaking at the dispatch box last night, Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband joked that Boris Johnson had been able to “unite all of his predecessors”, referring to the public interventions made by every living former PM warning against reopening the withdrawal agreement.

In the last week, Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major have all publicly weighed in on the Internal Market Bill, with David Cameron saying he has “misgivings” over the legislation.

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week described the Internal Market Bill as “a naked power grab which would cripple devolution”, saying it will lead to a “race to the bottom” on food standards.

What happens next?

The bill will continue to make its way through the various stages of voting in the House of Commons this week, starting with the report stage reading later today.

It will be put forward for Royal Assent only when it has cleared both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where serious opposition is expected.