Johnson Ramps Up Rhetoric as MPs’ Rebellion Brews: Brexit Update

Boris Johnson sought to rally his Conservative Party colleagues in a half hour conference call on Friday as he tried to defuse a brewing revolt in parliament over his plans to breach international law and rewrite the Brexit deal. In a follow-up news article, he said the European Union represents a threat to the integrity of the U.K.

Opposition to Johnson in Europe is hardening, with Germany and Ireland stepping up their criticism of the prime minister’s position. Even so, negotiators are still talking about trade and both sides say they want a deal, though time is running out before the Brexit transition phase ends in December.

Key developments:

  • Negotiations over a future U.K.-EU trade deal remained stalled, even as time runs out
  • U.K. and Japan strike trade agreement, in boost for post-Brexit Britain
  • Germany says Johnson is deliberately wrecking talks
  • The pound suffered its biggest weekly loss since March

Johnson Accuses EU of Seeking Blockade (9:56 p.m.)

Boris Johnson said the European Union is effectively to trying impose a food blockade through the Irish Sea by refusing to give the U.K. approved third party status for food exports.

“We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Johnson said he’s still targeting a Canada-style trade deal and urged Brussels to “take their threats off the table.”

Johnson Was Warned on Effect of Irish Protocol: FT (9 p.m.)

Ministers were told in an official briefing document in January that the Brexit divorce deal would enable the EU to claim jurisdiction over much of U.K. state aid policy after the transition period, the Financial Times reported.

Johnson Tries to Rally Tory MPs Behind Bill (6 p.m.)

Johnson sought to win support from Tory MPs for his Internal Market bill on a zoom call that lasted for about half an hour on Friday evening -- and battled with connection problems to get his message across.

One MP described it as a rallying cry for the troops, with the premier expressing his determination to get the legislation over the line.

A second said Johnson pitched it as a patriotic call to MPs to do their duty by supporting the bill and boosting his hand in the EU negotiations. The premier said it was a “no-brainer” to pass the bill, which he told them is needed to disapply legacy EU law. Johnson was serious and focused, with few of his trademark jokes, the MP said.

At the end of the call, Johnson didn’t take questions from MPs.

Tory Moderates See Rebellion Falling Short (3:30 p.m.)

Rebels are unlikely to defeat the government on its Internal Markets Bill, according to two Tory MPs who asked not to be named discussing a matter that’s upset many in the party.

Just six or seven MPs have definitely said they’ll support the rebel amendment in posts in Tory Whatsapp Groups, one of the MPs said, while the other said there’s no real danger of the government losing the vote.

Both MPs said they have misgivings about the bill and the government’s acknowledgment that it contains provisions that would break international law, but that they’re unlikely to break with party orders when it comes to a vote.

Johnson has a majority of 78, and if all opposition MPs oppose him, at least 40 Tories would need to rebel for him to be defeated.

Johnson to Address Tory MPs (1 p.m.)

The prime minister will hold a call with Conservative MPs at 5:30 p.m to make the case for his Brexit law-breaking plan, his official spokesman James Slack told reporters on Friday.

“It’s an opportunity to have some further engagement on what is a very important issue to ensure we do have that safety net in place to protect the integrity of the U.K.,” Slack said. “We remain fully committed to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Slack also said businesses should be preparing for the U.K.’s departure from the EU’s single market and customs union and for changes that will be required even if the two sides reach a free-trade agreement.

How Could the EU Retaliate? (12 p.m.)

Under Article 87 of the Withdrawal Agreement, the European Commission can bring the matter to the Court of Justice of the EU, which can then impose financial sanctions. But that legal process could drag on well beyond the end of the transition period.

Under the same article, the U.K. has agreed that for treaty obligations breached before the end of the transition period, it is still subject to ECJ rulings for another four years. But the U.K could choose to ignore them, especially if they include any financial penalties, in what would constitute another treaty breach.

Articles 171 to 181 of the Withdrawal Treaty also provide for a five-member arbitration panel to rule on matters of non-compliance following the end of the transition period. Again, the panel may impose financial penalties. If the U.K. still refuses to pay, Article 178 entitles the EU to suspend the Withdrawal Agreement at will, except the sections on citizens’ rights.

The biggest penalty, however, is one the EU could impose without reference to the courts: it could refuse to enter into any trade or other agreement with the U.K and deprive Britain of access to its biggest and closest economic partner.

Germany’s Maas Backs Ambassador’s Criticism (11:50 a.m.)

A Tweet by the German ambassador in London, in which he slammed Johnson’s plans to rewrite the Brexit deal, was backed by his government in Berlin. Ambassador Andreas Michaelis is “observing the situation with a great amount of heartfelt empathy,” and speaks for Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr told reporters in Berlin.

“In more than 30 years as a diplomat I have not experienced such a fast, intentional and profound deterioration of a negotiation,” Michaelis tweeted on Thursday. That’s quite something coming from Michaelis. Before his posting in London, the career diplomat rose to become a deputy minister as Maas’s state secretary and is credited with having broad sway over Germany’s foreign-policy establishment.

Ex-Chancellor Warns of Lords Resistance (11: 30 a.m.)

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, now a member of the House of Lords, warned the government will face a struggle to the get the upper chamber to back its Internal Market Bill.

In a Bloomberg Television interview, Lamont described Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s acknowledgment that the bill would break international law as “staggering,” before adding that Attorney General Suella Braverman’s argument that the plan wasn’t unprecedented was “more nuanced.”

“It’s going to be very difficult to persuade the House of Lords of which I am a member to accept this argument,” he told Tom Keene and Francine Lacqua.

Lamont said there’s 50:50 chance the U.K. and EU will reach agreement by year-end, adding that the Withdrawal Agreement had “blatant contradictions” in it that were always going to require changing.

Tories Try to Re-Write Internal Market Bill (9:45 a.m.)

Tory rebels, led by veteran Member of Parliament Bob Neill, have submitted an amendment to the Internal Market Bill that would bar the government from overriding the Withdrawal Agreement without Parliamentary support.

The amendment would allow the bill through, but prevent enactment of the clauses in it that breach the U.K.’s commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement until the House of Commons had approved the date from which they would take effect.

Two other Tory veterans, Oliver Heald and former de-facto Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green also put their names to the amendment.

Tory Rebel: ‘You Can’t Be a Little Bit Pregnant’ (Earlier)

Roger Gale, the Conservative MP for North Thanet in southeast England, said he will vote against the bill in its current form, and warned it will face opposition in the House of Lords.

“This is a matter of principle,” he told Bloomberg Radio’s Roger Hearing and Caroline Hepker. “If the government enters into an agreement freely and signs that agreement, then it is expected that the agreement will be honored.”

“You can’t be a little bit pregnant,” Gale said. “You can’t say, as the minister said from the dispatch box the other day, we’re breaking the law but only a little bit. You either keep the law or you break it. In parliament, we make the law and we have a duty to uphold it.”

“I will vote against the bill if it is presented in its present form,” said Gale, who has been an MP for almost 40 years. “Those of us who have been in the house for a long time have a duty to stand up and be counted.”

Talks Should Continue Until Last Moment (Earlier)

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said talks should continue until the last minute in search of a deal.

“Treaties have to be obeyed and this is what anyone knows,” he said in Berlin. “My view on discussion like this is that you have to do it up to the last moment, but you have to be very clear.”

But Germany’s ambassador to London was far tougher on Johnson, accusing the British of deliberately undermining the talks.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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