Boris Johnson shears a sheep in 2019 (Oli Scarff/Pool via Bloomberg)

Sheep in wolf’s clothing

The two theories about what No.10 is doing with the Internal Market Bill

Artillery Row

What’s really going on with the Internal Market Bill?

Does the bill break international law as the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said it did, or does it not break international law, as home secretary, Priti Patel suggested, along with the government’s advocate general for Scotland, Lord Keen, who has just resigned over the matter?

Brandon Lewis has since clarified that it does break international law, if the clauses are actually used by the government. Now sources from within government are suggesting they are climbing down on this point after striking a deal with Tory rebels. What then, does the bill actually do?

There seems to be two schools of thought. The first school suggests the bill is designed purely to alarm the EU into conceding ground and convince the Tories’ Brexiteer base that the government is dealing with the NI protocol. In this case the bill is a sheep in wolves clothing.

Those who believe this theory point to the “news” that the bill would break the Withdrawal Agreement appeared in the Financial Times and was broken by the anti-Brexit journalist, Peter Foster, who was bound to write it up as if it was equivalent to invading Crimea. Secondly, the wording that affirmed that the government was going to break international law was carefully prepared and read out by Brandon Lewis in the House of Commons. Why, if the government was genuinely planning to break international law, would they admit to it and not argue that the EU had already broken the agreement? And why did Boris Johnson claim that the bill was essential to prevent the EU blockading Northern Ireland’s imports of GB food when no such powers exist in the bill?

The slight caveat to this theory is that it presumes too much organisation on the part of the government. The whole thing has been a comms disaster. Several MPs who spoke to the negotiating team around the time of the leak said they seemed very stressed by the FT story. If you seek evidence of this government’s communication skills, consider how different ministers cannot even get their line straight on whether the EU is negotiating in good faith.

The problem with this theory is that the bill is clearly not a wolf

The second school of thought suggests that the government is genuinely trying to amend the Withdrawal Agreement but that they have messed the whole thing up when it was pre-emptively leaked by the FT.

In this case the FT removed the sheep’s clothing from the wolf and the government made the mistake of admitting it was indeed a wolf from the dispatch box.

The problem with this theory is that the bill is clearly not a wolf, as the modest powers do not address some of the main problems of the protocol. As the Brexiteer MP, Andrew Bridgen, said on the Internal Market debate, “we will need amendments to the Finance bill too, otherwise we will have to enforce EU tariffs between the UK and Northern Ireland … this is only the opening salvo of what I hope will become a roaring thunder.”

We should find out more when the Finance bill, which implements the Chancellor’s Budget, comes to the Commons. In the FT story, Foster said the Finance bill is expected to give the UK government the power to remove tariffs paid between goods moving from GB to NI. That eventuality, more than anything in the Internal Market Bill, would demonstrate to the EU and ERG alike, that this government is serious.

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