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Groundhog Day as British MPs feud over Brexit

By AFP - Sep 14,2020 - Last updated at Sep 14,2020

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking as he opens the debate into the government's proposed Internal Markets Bill, in the House of Commons in London, on Monday (AFP photo)

LONDON — It'll be deja vu all over again as Britain's parliament on Monday renews battle over Brexit, with influential MPs up in arms over Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to blow up an EU treaty.

The House of Commons will hold its first debate over a bombshell new bill introduced by Johnson's Conservative government, after a fraught buildup that evoked the film "Groundhog Day" for Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel.

"Whenever you achieve progress, at some point it is always Great Britain that does not want to keep its promises," he said.

"To be honest, at some point the British side will have to consider how seriously they take the whole thing."

Similar talk was heard last year from exasperated EU diplomats, as Britain was forced repeatedly to postpone Brexit in the face of parliamentary deadlock on how to implement British voters' shock decision in 2016 to quit the bloc.

The impasse was broken by Johnson's victory in a December general election, which gave the Conservatives an 80-seat majority in the Commons, and Brexit took legal effect the next month.

But in practice, Britain remains bound by EU rules under a transition period until the end of this year.

With the clock ticking down, no breakthrough is in sight for regulating cross-Channel trade from January, and Northern Ireland is back as a fiendishly complicated obstacle.

Ostensibly to provide an insurance policy in case of "no deal", Johnson's government last week introduced a bill to override the EU treaty and unilaterally regulate UK trade from January.

The EU, which is meant to retain a say over Northern Ireland's trading relationship with EU member Ireland, was blind-sided, as were many in parliament.

 

'Miserable days' 

 

Even some Brexiteer MPs and lords were aghast that Britain would trash a binding international treaty and potentially endanger Northern Ireland's fragile peace.

But the government is determined to ram the UK Internal Market Bill through as quickly as possible, and senior minister Michael Gove believes it can avert a full-scale rebellion.

"I think we have got the support of our own MPs and MPs in other parties as well," he told BBC television. "But you're absolutely right we are reaching a crunch moment."

On Friday evening, the prime minister held a chaotic Zoom call with about 250 Conservative backbenchers which appeared to do little to mollify the malcontents.

Johnson warned them against a return to the "miserable, squabbling days of last autumn" over Brexit, according to MPs' accounts to the media afterwards.

Not long after the call, he detonated another grenade by accusing the EU of plotting to break up the UK with a food "blockade" down the Irish Sea.

 

'Madman theory' 

 

EU leaders hotly denied the claim, and maintained their demands for Britain to withdraw the bill by the end of September or face legal action.

Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chairman of the Commons defence committee, said on Saturday that "unamended, I cannot support this bill".

"Already this bill is damaging brand UK, diminishing our role-model status as defender of global standards," he said.

"As we go to the wire, let's see more British statecraft — less Nixonian madman theory," he said, referring to a manipulative strategy associated with the former US president.

Commons Justice Committee chairman Robert Neill has filed an amendment to dictate that parliament, not the government, will have the final say on any changes to the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

The bill "is potentially a harmful act for this country, it would damage our reputation and I think it will make it harder to strike trade deals going forwar", he told Channel 4 News.

It remains to be seen whether Tory rebels can muster the numbers to seriously embarrass the government in Monday's first parliamentary test.

The main opposition Labour Party, which opposed Brexit, says it is open to negotiation about the bill but would rather be talking about COVID-19.

"We should be getting on with defeating this virus, not reigniting old rows," Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

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