The House of Lords has rejected Boris Johnson’s controversial Brexit bill that could potentially breach the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and break international law.
Peers voted to remove two clauses from the Internal Market Bill, which deal with the status of Northern Ireland after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.
The legislation will now go back to the House of Commons, however a government spokesperson said Johnson will not keep the changes made by the House of Lords.
The bill was drawn up to allow for the government to override the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement if there was no UK-EU trade deal agreed by 31 December when Britain leaves the customs union and single market.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis admitted to MPs that if there was no trade deal that the legislation would see the UK break international law “in a very specific and limited way”.
The Prime Minister said it was necessary to breach international law in order to ensure trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains unfettered.
The EU has claimed that the bill could endanger the Belfast Good Friday agreement, a charge the government denies, and has launched legal action over it.
Lord Michael Howard – former Tory leader and longtime Eurosceptic – voted against the bill, saying breaking international law would damage the UK’s global standing.
He said: “What sort of a precedent is the government setting when it admits that position?
“How can we reproach other countries – Russia, China, Iran – if their behaviour becomes reprehensible when we ourselves have such scant regard for the treaties we sign up to.”
The Liberal Democrats’ leader in the chamber Lord Richard Newby said the vote had “absolutely nothing to do with whether you think being a member of the European Union is a good or bad thing”.
“If we can’t take a view on a matter of deliberate lawbreaking by the government then we may as well pack up our bags now,” he said.
Northern Ireland will stay in the EU’s customs union from next year, while the rest of the UK will not.
That means the EU could potentially block the flow of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain if there is no trade deal in place.
Conservative peer Baroness Sheila Noakes, who voted with the government, said the parts of the bill relating to Northern Ireland are “wholly in the UK’s national interests and wholly in the national interests of our citizens in Northern Ireland”.
“Part five of the bill is a sincere attempt by the government to protect the Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland,” she said.
“If the way in which Northern Ireland has to operate with the UK is harmed it will follow that peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland will itself be harmed.”
A UK 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.”