Update on the UK Internal Market Bill

I would like to thank the many constituents who have taken the time to get in touch with me after the recent introduction of the UK Internal Market Bill and I do hope that you will find this update useful.

I should start by saying that this (like much else at present) is a fast-moving and fluid situation. There is a meeting of the EU/UK Joint Committee today in London in which this will be discussed – and I know that further conversations between the UK and EU negotiating teams are scheduled for the coming days. It’s worth saying from the outset (especially given the febrile nature of debate in the last 24 hours) that the UK Internal Market Bill does not itself break international law. If it passes through Parliament (and I expect a substantial number of amendments to be proposed in next week’s debates in the Commons and subsequently in the Lords), it would give the UK government the ability to disapply specific elements of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland in the event of a ‘No-Deal’ scenario. While the use of that power to disapply would be illegal, simply conferring the power to do so is not.

That may seem a somewhat academic point – but it’s important given the diplomatic backdrop. The clauses that have aroused the most controversy are designed to mitigate against the risk of – in the event of no deal being agreed by the end of the transition period – an extreme interpretation of the NI Protocols in the Withdrawal Agreement which would hamper the free movement of agricultural and consumer goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And of course, such a scenario would cripple many businesses in Northern Ireland at a time when they are managing the economic devastation resulting from COVID-19. It would also imperil the constitutional integrity of the UK – something that would inflame tensions and risk a return to the terrible violence we’ve seen in the past.

So as part of the Internal Market Bill, the government have included a clause which would allow them, in the event of a ‘No-Deal’ exit, to protect the constitutional and fiscal coherence of the UK. It is a safety net that would only need to be used if firstly, no trade deal emerges before December (which is not a scenario I would welcome or for which I believe the government is working) and secondly, should the EU subsequently choose to interpret the NI Protocols in the Withdrawal Agreement in such a way as to create barriers to the free trade of goods between NI and the rest of the UK.

I actually believe that to be relatively unlikely (though is theoretically possible) and that much of what we’re seeing (on both sides – as with the EU’s suggestion that they may create such barriers between the UK and NI) is designed to create leverage in negotiations.

I’m conscious that even as I’m writing this, much of it will be superseded by events – but I do hope it’s useful in clarifying the current situation as it stands.