Binning the Withdrawal Agreement: Kruger’s “minor technical tweak”?

Boris Johnson signing the Withdrawal Agreement

Clinging tenaciously to the party line, Danny Kruger, MP for Devizes, tells BBC Wiltshire that the government’s coyly named Internal Market Bill, introduced last week, contains only “minor technical tweaks” to protect the Good Friday peace deal. He’s wrong.

Despite its innocuous title, the Bill is designed to evade key provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement; no more, no less. It does this by subordinating EU law to UK domestic law. Nobody in government seems to care that this conflicts with article 27 of the 1969 Vienna convention on the law of treaties, which the UK signed a year later. One of the principles of that so-called ‘treaty of treaties’: a party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty. And as article 26 observes severely: “Pacta sunt servanda, every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Odd that classical scholar Boris missed that one.

Let’s be clear (to use a phrase favoured by government ministers, determined to be anything but): the Withdrawal Agreement was not “agreed in haste”. Despite warnings about the effects of the Irish protocol, the treaty was signed by the prime minister, endorsed by his government, sold to parliament, and promoted assiduously by the Tories before, during, and after the general election last December. How come we signed up to something allegedly so opaque that parts now need to be ‘re-interpreted’?

But suppose Danny Kruger’s interpretation is right and all the UK is doing is “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” as a government minister claimed. What not even the most silver-tongued backbencher can disguise is the fact that the UK government has decided, unilaterally, to opt out of provisions of an international agreement, which it entered into voluntarily. That breaks international law. At least the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had the courage to admit the fact last Tuesday. Doing so trashes the UK’s much-vaunted reputation for respecting legal agreements and dumps prospects of trade deals with other partners, newly nervous about increasingly perfidious Albion.

If the Withdrawal Agreement needs ‘tweaking’ so badly, why wait nine months to say so? Was it because the government was never serious about negotiating a deal to secure a future relationship with the EU? Had it always planned to pin the failure of no deal as the EU’s fault?  Was it because the UK government knows it would never be able to achieve the ‘tweaks’ it wants by negotiating with its former EU partners because they are self-evidently so much more than mere ‘tweaks’? Was this apparently last-minute hand grenade to duck out of the bits of the Withdrawal Agreement that it did not like really a long-standing ploy?  

A Withdrawal Agreement is for life, not just an election

It is not just the EU that this government has alarmed. The devolved governments are appalled; the US Congress is, too. The head of the government’s legal services has resigned, and no fewer than three former Tory leaders are furious. Lord Howard scathingly attacked the government for damaging the country’s reputation for probity.  

“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?”

An over-reaction bordering on hysteria for “minor technical tweaks”?  

Danny Kruger says that the government’s decision is “regrettable” but that is the least of the evils confronting it. The biggest evil is the government’s own duplicity: knowingly selling the electorate a fake prospectus.

Despite its protestations, the UK wanted a deal with the EU only on its own terms. But that’s not how negotiations work. To campaign to get a deal done and then to renege on it is dishonourable.  

Have Tory back benchers lost patience with the mask of sovereignty, taking back control and the rest of it?  Evidently Kruger has not. But Tory rebels are massing. Let us hope they stand up to the Whips!