The Guardian view on the rule of law: rogue state Britain? | Editorial

The Guardian view on the rule of law: rogue state Britain?

The UK internal market proposals turn Britain into a country whose word cannot be trusted. Conservative MPs must use their power to stop this shameful plan

Margaret Thatcher at a European referendum press conference in June 1975

Margaret Thatcher at a European referendum press conference in June 1975. In October that year she told the Tory conference that ‘the first duty of government is to uphold the law’.
Photograph: Keystone France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The damage is real, the damage is mounting and the damage must be ended as soon as possible. By trumpeting its readiness to override some of its treaty obligations towards the European Union, Boris Johnson’s government has cast Britain as a country that does not act in good faith and cannot be trusted to keep its word. The irresponsibility makes the Brexit process more difficult, triggering Thursday’s EU ultimatum to withdraw the plan. It subverts the rule of law at home and abroad. It pulls the rug from under Britain’s reputation everywhere from Ireland to Hong Kong, and wherever else people hope they can rely on Britain to play fair. The plans set out this week in the United Kingdom internal market bill read like an application for rogue state status.

The pushback against this law-breaking bill is already international. The government may have been relaxed about causing consternation in Brussels and exasperation in Berlin. But did it not stop to think of the impact on the politics of Ireland, north and south, or on already alienated opinion in Scotland and Wales, or on trade negotiators in Tokyo and other capitals? Did the government factor in the inevitably frosty response of the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who is proud of his Irish ancestry and a friend of the EU, or of Democratic lawmakers (and some Republicans too) in Washington? Did it think about the multitude of other places around the world where goodwill towards Britain cannot always be assumed? Did it not realise that the promise-breaking would be welcomed by the likes of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, all of whom will feel that Britain has just made it a bit easier for them to go on defying the rules too? If ministers did not think of these things, they are fools. If they did, and still went ahead, they are rogues.

Yet the key to limiting the damage and ending the disgrace lies in Britain. In particular, it lies in the Conservative party. It lies with the many Tories whose support for Brexit does not blind them to the damage caused by an approach to the issue that echoes the football chant of “No one likes us; we don’t care.” It lies with the parts of the party whose consciences have not been so scrambled by Brexit that they still grasp what Margaret Thatcher meant when she said that “the first duty of government is to uphold the law”, before going on to add that if governments “bob and weave and duck” around that duty, then so will the governed. And it lies with the thoughtful Tories who can see that the new bill is actually a sign of Britain’s weakness rather than its strength.

Theresa May spoke up very effectively for that position earlier in the week. On Thursday she was echoed by a more Thatcherite former Tory leader, Michael Howard, speaking in the House of Lords, who attacked the new bill and asked: “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?” Lord Howard is right about that. These are good signs, but many more Tory voices will be crucial.

In the end, though, the government’s recklessness will only be curbed if its approach faces defeat in a House of Commons that was elected just nine months ago to get Brexit done, but which was also elected to end the Brexit wars, not go on refighting them. It is more clearly than ever in Britain’s interest, especially in the economic turmoil we all now face because of Covid-19, for the Johnson government to now make a deal that does its best to safeguard jobs and the economy. It is time for MPs to reclaim the parliamentary sovereignty that is at the heart of our politics and put a quick end to a shameful episode.