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Hard-Brexiters Back Boris Johnson’s EU Trade Deal, But Keir Starmer Faces A Labour Revolt On The Vote

Boris Johnson's EU trade deal now has the backing of an influential group of Tory Brexiteers (PA)

5 min read

An influential group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs has said that Boris Johnson’s trade deal with the EU “preserves the UK’s sovereignty”, and confirmed they will vote it through parliament.

The European Research Group (ERG) of backbench Conservatives said the agreement “fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties”, meaning it is now likely the Prime Minister will get the support of all his MPs in tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons.

The ERG’s continued opposition to Theresa May’s deal with the EU led to repeated rebellions and damaging defeats in Parliament which led to her exit as Prime Minister last year.

Given the Conservatives' since-increased majority and Labour’s decision to back the deal, the ERG did not pose the same threat to Mr Johnson as to his predecesor, but he would still have been hoping to win their approval and present a united front on the issue.

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is facing a revolt over plans to whip his MPs to also vote in favour of the Prime Minister's deal when Parliament is recalled to scrutinise the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill.

He has called the deal "thin" and not what the government promised, but has urged his colleagues to back it on the basis that it is better than no deal at all.

However, around 20 will abstain according to Labour backbencher Rupa Huq, with up to another 20 set to defy the party line and vote against the deal, joining the SNP, the DUP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party in the no lobby.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, hundreds of MPs will vote by proxy rather than head to tier 4 Westminster, but while most on the Labour benches have chosen the party whip Chris Elmore to cast their ballot, it is thought at least 16 from the Socialist Campaign Group have put Bell Ribeiro-Addy in charge of their votes, presumably to vote against the bill.

The former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, ex-cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw and one-time leadership hopeful Clive Lewis were among the signatories to a statement this week calling on opposition MPs not to support the "rotten" agreement.

But while the opposition party is divided on the subject, for once the Conservatives appear to be in complete agreement on Brexit.

After publishing the full 1,246-page text of the agreement one of the ERG’s senior figures, veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, convened a self-styled "star chamber" of lawyers to examine it.

And in a statement this afternoon they gave an unqualified endorsement of the deal, saying: "Our overall conclusion is that the agreement preserves the UK's sovereignty as a matter of law and fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties.

"The 'level playing field' clauses go further than in comparable trade agreements, but their impact on the practical exercise of sovereignty is likely to be limited if addressed by a robust government.

"In any event they do not prevent the UK from changing its laws as it sees fit at a risk of tariff countermeasures, and if those were unacceptable the agreement could be terminated on 12 months' notice."

On fisheries they stated the agreement "temporarily limits the exercise of the UK's sovereign rights over its waters that would apply in the absence of the Agreement".

But they appeared to accept this compromise, stating that following the end of the fishing transition period the UK "will have the legal right to take full control of its waters".

The statement comes as MPs, recalled from their Christmas recess, are set to be given just a few hours to scrutinise the bill tomorrow as the government attempts to force it into law in just a single day.

Technically MPs are not approving the deal itself, but creating legislation to allow ministers to ratify the treaty with Brussels.

Mr Johnson is set to open the proceedings himself once a business motion outlining the plans is tabled at 9.30am, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove set to close the debate at around 2.30pm.

Meanwhile on Wednesday a copy of the treaty will be signed in Brussels by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel before being flown by an RAF plane to London for the PM to sign.

If as expected the EU (Future Relationship) Bill passes third reading in the Commons it will then head to the House of Lords at around 3pm, who are due to sit until late on Wednesday evening before a final vote, with Downing Street hoping it gets Royal Assent either tomorrow night or Thursday morning.

A spokesman for Number 10 would not discuss contingency plans if peers amend the bill in any way, but there is the option to call back to the Commons to sit again on Thursday morning if needed, with the EU transition period set to end at 11pm.

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