Brexit: Government suffers huge defeats as top Tories join attacks on 'ridiculous and immoral' bill

·3-min read

The House of Lords has voted to remove parts of the government's Brexit legislation that ministers have admitted will allow them to break international law.

In two votes, peers voted overwhelmingly (433 votes to 165, majority 268, and 407 votes to 148, majority 259) to strip out the controversial clauses in the UK Internal Market Bill.

The government has already vowed to reinstate them when the legislation returns to the Commons.

Reacting to the defeats, a government spokesperson said: "We are disappointed that the House of Lords has voted to remove clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill, which was backed in the House of Commons by 340 votes to 256 and delivers on a clear Conservative manifesto commitment.

"We will retable these clauses when the bill returns to the Commons.

"We've been consistently clear that the clauses represent a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK's internal market and the huge gains of the peace process."

The bill, which has been condemned by critics both in Westminster and abroad, seeks to allow ministers to override the Withdrawal Agreement signed with the EU.

Former prime minister Sir John Major said the legislation had "damaged our reputation around the world".

"Lawyers everywhere are incredulous that the UK - often seen as the very cradle of the Rule of Law - could give themselves the power to break the law," he added.

Speaking in the chamber earlier, former Tory leader Lord Howard said the UK would be setting a "lamentable example" if it breaks international law.

Lord Clarke, a former chancellor, said the legislation was "immoral", describing it as "intrinsically ridiculous and deeply damaging".

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Fox joined the criticism, telling the Lords: "A law-breaking government might have impressed President Trump.

"But when there is an Irish-American president in waiting, this bill is not a good look."

Lord Falconer, a Labour peer and former lord chancellor, also warned over the impact of the US election result.

He said: "If these clauses were ever used they would be guaranteeing, as president-elect Biden has said, that the UK would go to the bottom of the pecking order with the US in Europe.

"Popular UK to Billy no-mates, all in 10 weeks from the 8th of September."

Lord Newby, leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords, said the upper chamber was "within its constitutional right" to remove the clauses.

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"If we can't take a view on a matter of deliberate law-breaking by the government we may as well pack up our bags now," he added.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said a "primary function" of the Lords is to "defend the rule of law and to protect the balances of power and peace in our Union".

As a result, he said the move by peers would have his "unqualified support".

The fresh parliamentary row over the legislation is likely to again be closely watched in the US, where president-elect Joe Biden has previously warned about Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement becoming a "casualty" of Brexit.

The Financial Times has reported Mr Biden will stress this point during his first call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the coming days.

Speaking to Sky News earlier, Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government would stand firmly behind its legislation.