Boris Johnson must be reined in over illegal actions – Scotsman comment

Conservative MPs must not allow Boris Johnson’s Government to think it is able to break the law with impunity.

Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 12:30 pm
Updated Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 1:05 pm
Boris Johnson's Internal Market Bill contains measures that would unilaterally rewrite parts of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU (Picture: Jessica Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson's Internal Market Bill contains measures that would unilaterally rewrite parts of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU (Picture: Jessica Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)

In a speech to the Westminster Parliament just before the UK entered the First World War, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey told MPs that if Britain failed to honour its obligations to defend Belgium under a treaty signed some 75 years previously, it would “sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world”.

As the veteran journalist Simon Heffer recently noted, this commitment to an age-old promise contrasts sharply with Boris Johnson’s threat to flout a treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement, he signed with the EU less than a year ago.

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“Although it is the treaty enabling us to withdraw from the European Union, even many Brexiteers are appalled when they consider the reputational consequences of simply breaking a solemn and binding treaty,” Heffer wrote.

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The Government’s admission that its Internal Market Bill would break international law by unilaterally rewriting part of the Withdrawal Agreement has caused something of a rebellion among Conservative MPs. That the party which rightly prides itself on its commitment to the rule of law should take such a step is shocking and, when taken with the attempt to illegally prorogue parliament last year to prevent MPs properly scrutinising Johnson’s supposedly “oven-ready deal”, it suggests a concerning pattern is developing.

The power of a British Prime Minister with a large majority – like Johnson – has often been compared to that of a medieval monarch. Ambitious politicians in the governing party know they need to toe the line if they hope to advance up the ministerial ladder towards one of the great offices of state, rather than being reshuffled back to relative obscurity, and this can significantly reduce the chance of the Government being defeated in the Commons.

However, Conservative MPs who are concerned about Johnson’s current direction of travel – which should be all of them – need to make the Prime Minister fear this could happen to him if he is to be persuaded to get back on the straight and narrow. Power is an intangible thing that can begin slip away after a defeat, as Theresa May discovered, and he would be wise to take such a prospect seriously.

If Johnson is allowed to continue to act as if the rule of law does not matter, with little effective opposition, Britain may regret the absence of the sense of honour and duty that, in a different age, was very much in our elected representatives’ minds.

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