The justice secretary has suggested he will quit the government if it breaks the law over Brexit but insisted “we are not at that stage”.
Robert Buckland defended the controversial Internal Market Bill, which gives UK ministers the power to unpick key parts of Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement (WA) that govern trade in Northern Ireland.
He suggested the powers were only an insurance policy to be used if negotiations with the EU in the so-called joint committee, which monitors the implementation of the WA, collapse.
It comes after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis admitted last week that powers in the Bill will “break international law”.
The plans have sparked a major Tory rebellion and calls from former prime ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major for MPs to oppose the legislation in votes this week because they imperil the peace process in Northern Ireland and Brexit negotiations on a trade deal with the EU.
The EU has also reacted furiously to the proposals, giving the UK an September 30 deadline to drop the legislation or risk the collapse of negotiations on a trade deal.
Buckland suggested the UK would only be breaking the law if it actually uses the powers after the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
He said he did not think that would happen because the government will strike a deal in the joint committee on trade in Northern Ireland, which is treated differently from the rest of the UK and will have to follow some EU trade rules to maintain an invisible border with the Republic of Ireland under the terms of the WA.
Buckland told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then of course I will go.
“We are not at that stage.”
Asked if he would quit at the moment the UK does invoke the powers and breaks international law, Buckland said: “I don’t believe we are going to get to that point.
“That is why I shall be working very hard to ensure that we don’t.”
Earlier, he insisted the Bill was in line with “the most honourable traditions of the British state”.
The justice secretary said the idea was simply “to alert everyone to a possibility of a problem, to actually legislate to prepare ourselves domestically for that”.
He told Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News: “But, to make the point, we’re not at that stage yet and we don’t have to be if all parties come together and work with a will to get these provisions agreed then we won’t need these clauses at all.
“That’s the government’s sincere wish, we’re 100% committed to these negotiations, we’re going to press on with them until the end.”
On the Bill, he added: “This isn’t something we do lightly, this isn’t something that we actually want to use, this is something that a responsible government does in order to prepare for the worst.
“But can I reiterate our steely determination to get a deal.”
The Bill will come to parliament for votes this week, with several rebel Tories lining up behind an amendment by Commons justice committee chair Bob Neill that would give MPs a veto on the controversial powers been used.
A Whitehall source dismissed suggestions that the government could accept Neill’s amendment.
Labour meanwhile confirmed it would oppose the legislation in its current form, setting up a major parliamentary showdown.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves told Marr: “Tomorrow the Bill as it stands, the Labour Party, and it looks like a large number of Conservatives, will not support it.
“Because I cannot go through and Keir Starmer cannot go through the division lobbies... knowing that we are deliberately and consciously breaking international law.
“It’s the wrong thing to do for our moral standing in the world.
“But it’s also absolutely counterproductive in achieving what we want to achieve - and that is a free trade agreement with the European Union... free trade agreements around the world.
“Britain’s reputation around the world is one based on our values and our traditions and at the hart of that is respect for the rule of law.”
Blair and Major, former Labour and Tory leaders, have united to condemn the Bill in an article for the Sunday Times.
They wrote: “We both opposed Brexit. We both accept it is now happening. But this way of negotiating, with reason cast aside in pursuit of ideology and cavalier bombast posing as serious diplomacy, is irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice,” they said.
“It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal — crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation.”
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier meanwhile rejected Downing Street’s claims that Brussels was threatening to block the export of British food products to Europe.