Former British Attorney General and current Conservative MP Geoffrey Cox has made it clear that he may say “no” to the government's efforts to override parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, when voting on the UK Internal Market Bill takes place at the House of Commons later on Monday.
The bill, which was introduced by the government last Wednesday, targets a specific part of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, or the Brexit deal, pertaining to the Northern Ireland Protocol, an element of the agreement designed to prevent a hard border from returning to the island of Ireland.
While the bill proposes no new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, it grants UK ministers powers to modify or "disapply" rules relating to the movement of goods that enter force from 1 January, if the UK and EU fail to hammer out a trade deal.
In an article published by The Times on Sunday, Cox noted in this regard that “no British minister should solemnly undertake to observe treaty obligations with his fingers crossed behind his back”.
“The withdrawal agreement and its attendant Northern Ireland protocol represent treaty obligations of this country to which the government, in which I had the honour to serve as attorney-general, gave its solemn and binding word. It is, therefore, obliged to accept all the ordinary and foreseeable consequences of the implementation of that agreement,” the Tory MP pointed out.
He added that there is “no doubt” that the “unpalatable but inescapable” implications of the Withdrawal Agreement were known when Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed it, at a time when Cox served as Attorney General. These implications included “a duty to interpret and execute both the agreement and the protocol in good faith”, according to Cox.
In an apparent reference to the government’s attempts to “nullify those perfectly plain and foreseeable consequences”, he underscored that “it is unconscionable that this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way”.
The ex-Attorney General warned Cabinet ministers against using their powers “permanently and unilaterally to rewrite portions of an agreement into which this country freely entered just a few months ago”.
“Therefore, if the government does not urgently and effectively dispel the impression that it intends to do so, I shall have no choice but to withhold my support for this [UK Internal Market] bill. I am a strong supporter of this government and of Brexit and I am deeply saddened to have to say this,” Cox concluded.
There are reportedly up to 30 Tories in opposition to the bill in the House of Commons, and in addition, Lord Howard of Lympne, the former Conservative Party leader, hinted on Friday that the House of Lords may vote against Johnson's initiative.
Brussels, in turn, slammed Downing Street for having "seriously damaged trust", warning in a statement that the withdrawal agreement was a legal obligation, and that "neither the EU nor the UK can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret, disregard or disapply” the deal.