Isabel Hardman

The Northern Ireland Protocol: the real fight is yet to come

The Northern Ireland Protocol: the real fight is yet to come
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Last night’s vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill didn’t turn into an open revolt from Tory MPs – but that’s not to say that there isn’t big trouble for the legislation. A chunk of Conservatives abstained, some of them having made very clear in the debate on the second reading of this legislation that they could not support it. Theresa May, Julian Smith, Simon Hoare and Bob Neill all raised serious concerns in their speeches and did not vote. Other Conservatives who did support the legislation still said they were uncomfortable with certain aspects of it. Robin Millar, who voted in favour, nonetheless told MPs that ‘I have concerns about the sweeping powers within it given to ministers’ and said he hoped changes might be made as the legislation moved through parliament. David Simmonds similarly said that he felt it was best to ‘give the government the benefit of the doubt and to create a space for a negotiation that, as we have heard, is happening in good faith’. The emphasis in his speech and those from many other Conservative colleagues such as Robert Buckland and Aaron Bell was on the need to have a bargaining chip and a backstop.

But there have also been suggestions circulating in the Conservative party that anyone who votes against the Bill could face losing the whip. Those rumours seem to be being talked up by the rebel side as much as by the whips themselves, which underlines that some of the opposition to the legislation overlaps with particularly strident opposition to Boris Johnson himself and the way he is leading the party. There is also a whiff of opposition to Liz Truss’s own leadership ambitions, with Hoare asking: ‘Is the Bill a muscle flex for a future leadership bid? To sacrifice our national reputation on the altar of personal ambition would be shameful.’

The Bill passed 295 votes to 221, and given Johnson’s desire to get it on the statute books as quickly as possible, it is highly unlikely there will be much room for the sort of amendments that Millar and others were calling for – last night’s majority shows there is no need. Where the real fight will come is when the Lords send down what are likely to be extensive amendments to be approved by the Commons.

But the fact that the whips were so happy to give absence slips to possible opponents and the hardcore of rebels who spoke but abstained (including a former prime minister) shows how difficult it is for this government to do anything that isn’t seen through the prism of the party’s internal psychodrama about its leadership.