Brexit has been catapulted back onto the front pages, to the delight of Westminster wonks and politics nerds everywhere. We have been gifted the eagerly awaited sequel to the chaos of last autumn, in which so many precedents were broken that following precedent would in itself have been unprecedented.
The Internal Market Bill is now on the floor of the House of Commons. It passed its second reading with flying colours, but the real fun will come when MPs vote on amendments next week – including Sir Bob Neill’s demand that no international laws can be breached without Parliament’s explicit consent – and then when it enters the House of Lords after that.
But even that is just the beginning of ‘Boris versus the Tory party 2.0’. Concerns about the powers given to the EU by the Withdrawal Agreement and its accompanying Northern Ireland Protocol were not given the time of day when they were published – and voted into law by MPs – last year.
That’s partly because most people in Westminster were gobsmacked that the government’s bonkers strategy had worked, allowing them to secure a deal with the EU after all. And it was partly down to the fact that British politics was suffering from a severe bout of Brexit fatigue. After months of fruitless talks and endless delays, most were grateful to have any deal on the table at all. So they took it and ran.
But that deal had some fundamental flaws which are now seeing the light of day for the first time. As Brexiteer backbencher Andrew Bridgen pointed out in the Internal Market Bill debate, that bill does not come close to negating fears about the EU’s power in Northern Ireland.
“We will need amendments to the Finance Bill too, otherwise we will have to enforce EU tariffs between the UK and Northern Ireland,” he said. “This is only the opening salvo of what I hope will become a roaring thunder.”
Quite. The Finance Bill – the parliamentary vehicle for the Chancellor’s autumn budget – is expected to be published in the coming weeks. It will have the UK-EU Joint Committee, the body responsible for ironing out details in the Withdrawal Agreement, firmly in its sights.
As it stands, the EU has a great deal of say over which goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain should face tariffs, via the Joint Committee. For Brexit-supporting Tories – and, indeed, anyone who believes in the integrity of the United Kingdom – this is unacceptable.
This is the materialisation of the ‘border down the Irish Sea’ cliché. This provision grants Brussels an unacceptable level of power over the internal affairs of the UK. While the Internal Market Bill only rolls back the Northern Ireland Protocol to make more space for negotiating leverage in trade talks, the Finance Bill will be charged with the much heftier task of rewriting post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland all over again.
All that means that the best – or the worst, depending on your perspective – is still yet to come. Amid the turmoil of coronavirus restrictions and the testing palaver, and while trying to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries around the world, the government is gearing up for yet another almighty fight in the coming months.
Boris Johnson might have a majority of 80, but he is far from home and dry. There has already been talk of removing the whip from swathes of Tory backbenchers – including dissenting grandees like Geoffrey Cox and Sajid Javid.
By breaching international law in his attempts to prise open the Withdrawal Agreement that he sealed just a year ago, Johnson has revived the Brexit debate and put everything back on the table. Strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.