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11 September 2020

Will the Conservative rebellion over Brexit defeat the government?

Even if the Internal Market Bill survives unscathed, it’s not clear why Boris Johnson believes this is a fight worth having in 2020.   

By Stephen Bush

Full steam ahead for a no-deal Brexit? Michael Gove has told the European Commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, that the UK government will not be withdrawing its Internal Market Bill – putting the government and the European Union on a collision course with only a few months until the Brexit transition period ends. 

The decision could be taken out of the British government’s hands. In the House of Lords, former Tory leader Michael Howard and former chancellor Norman Lamont, long-term Eurosceptics and Brexiteers both, have lambasted the government’s plans to break international law, which is a sign of how strong opposition is. But the Upper House will largely take its cue from what happens in the Commons, where the government has a majority of 86. 

But there is no guarantee that the government will win even there. The bill as written would still thicken the regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which is why the European Research Group of Brexiteers is seeking to amend it, while a large group of Conservative MPs are concerned about the explicit breach of international law. Either group, or both, could defeat the government.

[see also: Boris Johnson says we need to break international law “to protect the peace process”. Is he right?]

The most likely outcome is a large but unsuccessful rebellion in the Commons, followed by the Lords testing the resolve of the elected House with one or two well-chosen amendments that reflect the points of maximum unease. The government would then have a near-death experience when these amendments are brought back to the Commons, but the bill would survive largely unscathed. 

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Of course, the problem – as we’ve seen throughout this parliament – is that once an MP rebels for the first time, they are more likely to do so again, which makes it harder for the government to win difficult votes on other issues. 

That, of course, speaks to one of the biggest government follies of all: which is that it’s not at all clear why Boris Johnson thinks this is a fight worth having in 2020. Don’t forget that by seeking an extension to the transition period, the government could have bought itself more time to deliver the required infrastructure at ports – which would make a no-deal exit more manageable or make a no-deal posture more believable, give businesses more breathing space to recover from the pandemic, and, crucially, free up the government to focus on improving its ability to test, trace and isolate new cases of the novel coronavirus. 

[see also: Why the Conservatives are prepared to break the law over Brexit]