Boris Johnson has told MPs he believes the EU may not be negotiating with the UK in good faith.
The PM was explaining why he wants to overwrite parts of the Brexit deal he signed with the EU in January.
He said it was to prevent the EU behaving in an “unreasonable” way if the UK fails to agree a trade deal.
Pressed by Labour’s Hilary Benn on whether he thought the EU was negotiating in good faith, he said: “I don’t believe they are.”
This contradicted Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who earlier told MPs he believed the EU was acting in good faith.
When that was put to him, Mr Johnson said it was “always possible that I am mistaken and perhaps they will prove my suspicions wrong”.
Both sides have a duty to act in good faith under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement – but it is difficult to demonstrate a lack of “good faith” or “best endeavours” – another phrase enshrined in the treaty.
The legal definition of “good faith” is stronger than the generally accepted meaning of the words.
Mr Johnson told the Liaison Committee, a panel of senior backbench MPs, that a no-deal scenario was “not what this country wants” and “it’s not what our EU friends and partners want from us”.
“Therefore I have every hope and expectation that that won’t be the outcome.”
It comes as Lord Keen, Scotland’s Advocate General, quit the government, telling the PM: “I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what I consider to be my obligations as a Law Officer with your policy intentions.”
Lord Keen objected to the UK Internal Markets Bill, which would allow the government to override parts of the withdrawal bill in contravention of international law.
The PM has reached a deal with some of the Tory MPs unhappy with parts of the bill, potentially reducing the size of a rebellion when it returns to the Commons next week.
The government has agreed to table an amendment to the bill, which would give MPs a vote before it used the powers in the bill that would break international law.
In a joint statement with No 10, former cabinet minister Damian Green – head of a centrist group of Tory MPs – said: “The Internal Market Bill was designed to give MPs and peers a vote on the use of these powers via statutory instrument.
“But following talks, it is agreed that the Parliamentary procedure suggested by some colleagues provides a clearer, more explicit democratic mandate for the use of these powers, and also provides more legal certainty.”
It means Sir Bob Neill – the Tory grandee who had been planning to try to give MPs the final say over the powers in the bill – will now drop his amendment.
The statement claims that on the Tory benches there is “near-unanimous agreement that the government must be able to use these powers as a final resort, that there must be legal certainty, and that no further amendments are required on these powers”.
It adds that the government will table another amendment “which sets clear limits on the scope and timeliness of judicial review into the exercise of these powers”.
Welcoming the agreement, Mr Green urged the government to focus on settling the terms of its future economic partnership with the bloc before the 15 October deadline set by the PM.
However Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said his party would continue opposing the bill.
Responding to the joint statement he said: “This does not fix the problem of breaking the law, damaging our reputation around the world and damaging our future prosperity.
“We need a trade deal with Europe and that is what we were promised. Breaking our own word and the treaty the prime minister signed puts that at risk.”
‘Belt and braces’
Mr Johnson says the Internal Market Bill is needed to protect the “territorial integrity” of the UK if trade talks with the EU fail.
He described it to MPs as a “belt and braces” measure in case of “extreme” interpretations of the withdrawal agreement by the EU.
The bill was “about ensuring friends and partners don’t do something unreasonable,” he added.
But it has provoked a backlash from the EU, which has threatened legal action – and the possible suspension of trade talks – if it is not withdrawn.
What is the Internal Market Bill?
The bill sets out rules for the operation of the UK internal market – trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – after the end of the Brexit transition period in January.
- No new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of Great Britain
- Giving UK ministers powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods that will come into force from 1 January if the UK and EU are unable to reach an alternative agreement through a trade deal
- Powers to override previously agreed obligations on state aid – government support for businesses.
The bill explicitly states that these powers should apply even if they are incompatible with international law.
Ministers say the legislation is needed to prevent “damaging” tariffs on goods travelling from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland if negotiations with the EU on a free trade agreement fail.
But some senior Conservatives – including former Prime Minister Sir John Major – have warned it risks undermining the UK’s reputation as an upholder of international law.
The legislation has also proved controversial with the devolved administrations, which are concerned about how the UK’s “internal market” will operate post-Brexit and who will set regulations and standards.