Last Monday (14th September) Sally-Ann Hart, MP for Hastings and Rye, voted with the Conservative majority in the House of Commons to approve the government’s Internal Market Bill, despite admission by Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, that its provisions would “break international law”. 

The law in question, which aims to ensure that all four home nations of the UK maintain undifferentiated trading rules and standards, appears to contradict provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the trading position of Northern Ireland which the government signed up to with the European Union last autumn. 

Proponents of Town Deal bid for West St Leonards meet MP Sally-Ann Hart on site

Constituency Labour party politicians Peter Chowney, the defeated candidate at the last two general elections, and Michael Foster, who was the elected MP between 1997 and 2010, have spoken out against the bill.

Mr Chowney said: “That the government could even be considering breaking international agreements, and jeopardising the still-fragile peace in Ireland through such bombastic hubris, is frankly terrifying.

“Failing to honour an international agreement, or even threatening to do so, would make the UK a pariah state, with whom no-one would want to do any future deals.

“What’s the point in negotiating a trade agreement with a state that unilaterally tears it up as soon as it doesn’t suit them? This would be bad enough at any time but, at a time when the entire economic future of the country is dependent on our ability to do new international deals, it’s catastrophic. The government must abandon this ludicrous bill. Jobs and lives are at stake.”

Mr Foster described the government’s action as unjustified and counter-productive. “Our best bet of getting a deal is that we show that we can trusted, that we stick to our word, that we are not lawless in pursuit of a deal which is our objective. I believe this bill is going to make it more difficult rather than less difficult.

“And how will other international dealings be possible outside Europe if we can’t be trusted, that we can’t stick to our word?”

But Mrs Hart, who is a member of the parliamentary select committee on the future relationship with the EU, did not merely file passively through the voting lobby with her party colleagues. She used her website blog this week to defend her support for the bill, asserting that it was necessary to “get Brexit done”.

She wrote: “I absolutely agree that upholding the rule of law is a fundamental principle. Adhering to obligations under a treaty is part of the rule of law.” But Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement places a duty on both sides to “act in good faith”, and Mrs Hart maintains that clauses in the bill regarding the trading position of Northern Ireland “will only need to be relied upon if the EU does not act in good faith.

“The government has been put in this position only because the EU has failed to honour its side of the Withdrawal Agreement and is failing to act in good faith.

“It is the EU which must act in good faith to secure a free trade deal, or it will have to accept that the UK can confirm our sovereignty in primary legislation by way of amendment to the detail of the Withdrawal Act.”

The bill has been amended to require further parliamentary approval before any breach of the Withdrawal Agreement is triggered. It is also expected to be challenged in the House of Lords. Five former Prime Ministers (Messrs Blair, Brown, Major, Cameron and Mrs May) have made their opposition public. 

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