The Internal Market Bill: An Open Letter

Open letter to John Howell MP, from the Chair of Oxford For Europe, Peter Burke

7 September 2020

Dear John,

You may have noticed that I have been silent for some months. This is not because there is too little to write about, but quite the reverse. I have been gobsmacked by the profusion of dangerous and incompetent acts committed by our current prime minister, and to try to communicate on every one would be excessive. Even in the recent past, the handling of the test and trace process, the Cummings affair, the A-level fiasco, and the appointments of Dido Harding and Tony Abbott are just a few examples of actions which would leave any sensible person reaching for the smelling salts.

However, I really cannot stay silent on the latest action, the proposed Internal Market Bill, which in effect legislates against customs barriers in the Irish Sea. This is not only unwise and dangerous, threatening as it does the Good Friday agreement, but it is also illegal. It is in flagrant breach of the EU Withdrawal Agreement signed less than a year ago by this prime minister. The fact that he did not know at the time what he was signing is no defence. The Withdrawal Agreement – for which, I need not remind you, you yourself voted – places a clear obligation on the UK government to avoid the export of prohibited goods from Great Britain into the EU single market, ie The Republic of Iteland. In the absence of a border on the island of Ireland, and the UK government has legally committed to this, customs checks between GB and Northern Ireland are entirely inevitable. So any commitment not to have them is clearly illegal.

If the government attempts to walk away from a binding treaty it is turning this country into a pariah state, and not only the EU but any other third country will want to avoid making treaties with it. Indeed to do so it would be a complete waste of time. All this at a time when negotiations with the EU 27 have reached an extremely sensitive point. To believe this will frighten our interlocutors or make them more likely to make concessions is quite simply naive. To claim that this is simply a contingency plan for the possibility of talks breaking down, is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. After the talks may well break down, and it they do it will be because of this government’s failure to understand the most basic principles of negotiation, i.e. when you’re in a hole stop digging.

I know from our previous correspondence that you are a loyal backbencher and will stay mute even when, in your heart of hearts, you know that the government is acting stupidly and is driving the country off a cliff. However in this one case I would appeal to you to make your voice heard because not only the economic future of the country but also its international reputation for honesty and probity are at stake.

Best Wishes


9 September 2020

Dear Peter

Thank you for your email about the White Paper on the UK Internal Market. I appreciate you taking the time to make me aware of your concerns on this matter.

This document sets out the Government’s plans to ensure that businesses across the whole of the United Kingdom will continue to enjoy seamless internal trade, as we have done for centuries, when the transition period expires.

When we leave the EU hundreds of powers previously exercised at EU level will flow directly to the UK Government, and to the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. To allow each home nation to take full advantage of these new opportunities, and to ensure that businesses can continue to trade freely across the UK, the Government will legislate to maintain the UK Internal Market and to ensure new barriers to trade do not emerge within the UK as EU law falls away. 

The White Paper contains a Market Access Commitment to give UK businesses certainty that their goods and services can be traded seamlessly in all home nations. The Government’s proposals will mean that there is no difference in internal trade arrangements for businesses when the Transition Period ends, meaning total continuity and total confidence for businesses, consumers and investors across the UK.

I know that businesses across the country rely on being able to trade freely and seamlessly across our four home nations, as they have done for hundreds of years. Many businesses depend on internal trade more than with any other trading partner.

As part of the White Paper, a consultation ran up to 13 August. As this is such a vital piece of work for businesses across the UK, I hope that businesses and individuals who trade internally responded to the consultation with their views on the Government’s proposals. 

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. 


John Howell OBE MP FSA
Member of Parliament for the Henley Constituency

9 September 2020

Dear John,

Thank you very much for your response. All of what you say may be true, but it does not address the fundamental question, which is that the Government signed an internationally binding agreement and is now proposing to renege on it. Not only that, but it emerges that it promised to do so as a condition for gaining the support of pro Brexit MPs such as Bernard Jenkin. This has been asserted by Mr Jenkin himself and has not been denied.

The Withdrawal Agreement and the EU trade deal are entirely separate and one does not depend on the other. Therefore if the trade talks unravel – perhaps as a result of this Government’s own intransigence – that is no defence for rolling back on the WA.

We on the Remain side said at the time that the Withdrawal Agreement was unsatisfactory, and indeed it was always clear that a satisfactory Brexit outcome was impossible. It now appears that the government is admitting this very fact by finding the agreement unworkable. Nonetheless, it has signed it and it must honour this commitment if it expects to be treated with respect by any future interlocutors, EU or otherwise.

In today’s Prime Minister‘s questions, Mr Johnson was given every opportunity to clarify his intentions, or even to refute the well-founded claim that the government was acting illegally. Instead he gave the House nothing more than empty rhetoric. In pretending that this bill was in some way a defence of the Good Friday agreement he was being frankly and knowingly mendacious: the whole point of the Northern Ireland protocol was to safeguard the Good Friday agreement and peace on the Irish border.

Furthermore, to talk about the government’s current actions as a defence of UK business is to ignore the profound damage which business will suffer as a result of the No Deal Brexit which the prime minister is now describing as a “good outcome”.
If this Bill is allowed to proceed it will surely be challenged in the courts and defence against such a challenge will prove difficult or impossible. It will cause as much embarrassment and harm to the government’s reputation as the failed prorogation of Parliament last year.

I firmly believe that any honourable MP will agree with Theresa May that this decision is deeply damaging to the credibility of the government and the country, and accordingly will vote against the Bill.

Best wishes,


14 September 2020

Dear John,

Geoffrey Cox QC has made clear that the government’s action is indefensible and is leading what I believe will be a substantial rebellion among Tory MPs against this flagrant breach of international law. I very much hope that you will join him. MPs voting for the Bill will be supporting an action which all five surviving ex Prime Ministers have agreed is indefensible. I fully understand the attempt at justification which you have quoted in your previous email. It does not address the question of legality, and will be taken no more seriously than if an armed robber argues in court that his children were starving and he had no choice but to act as he did in order to feed them. It will cut no ice either with the courts, with the EU or with other countries with whom we are negotiating. The Japanese are undoubtedly looking with interest at what is happening in parliament before deciding whether or not to ratify the trade deal which has been agreed in principle. 

Furthermore, any attempt to blame the EU for acting in bad faith is clearly going to blow up in the government’s face. The EU are not the ones breaking the law, and are acting precisely as they said they would. If the Prime Minister had concerns about this he should never have signed the Withdrawal Agreement. He cannot reap the political benefits of doing so without taking responsibility for it. He has painted himself into a corner and undoubtedly ensured that his days in office are numbered. It is not your job to bail him out.

I understand that amendments are proposed which will require a referral back to Parliament. This would of course be useful if Parliament then has the courage to vote no, but otherwise it is not going to be a substitute for simple rejection of the Bill.

If you and your colleagues show willingness to stand up to this Prime Minister and his illegal actions it will demonstrate to all that Parliamentary democracy in the UK is still alive and well and that Boris Johnson is not acting in your name.

Dr Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

From: John Howell MP <>
Sent: 14 September 2020 12:20
Subject: Internal Markets Bill (Case Ref: JH68026) Dear Peter

Thank you for your email. 

I have put a piece on my website to which I refer you:


14 Sept 2020

Thank you very much for this prompt response, John. I have indeed read the response on your website. I do understand that there is a real problem for trade within the UK, and this is entirely a problem of the prime minister’s making. He had the option, last autumn, of walking away from the WA, accepting that he had been wrong, that any form of Brexit was going to cause profound damage to the UK, and giving the country a chance to think it through again. Instead, he chose unwisely to pursue a different course and he is now going to have to bear the political consequences of that decision.  

All those, including the five former prime ministers, who have been critical of the Bill, are well aware of the problems you mention. The question of legality, however, remains unanswered . Whatever the short term benefit of this course of action, It will cause long damage to the country, Its reputation and its relations with the rest of the world. In doing so, it will kill the much vaunted concept of “global Britain” before it has even started.

Best wishes,


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