More than 20 Conservative MPs, including a number of former lawyers, are expected to rebel or abstain at the vote on Boris Johnson’s controversial bill, which the government admits will break international law, risking the possibility that they will lose the Conservative whip.
Two former barristers – the ex-attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, and Rehman Chishti, who quit as the special envoy on religious freedom – have told the government they will not back the internal market bill on Monday night, along with former solicitor Gary Streeter.
“There is concern among some lawyers in parliament about what effect this would have on their practice after they leave parliament, the bar has made its view very clear,” one MP said.
Others who will abstain include Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence select committee, who said: “Everything is getting very high octane, and the collateral damage to Britain is reaching the US Congress, where people are bewildered we are going down this avenue,” he said.
“Many of us are conflicted because I came into politics to further Britain’s place on the international stage, and now we are at time where there is an absence of political leadership, and we can’t hold our heads up high if we are being seen to challenge international law.”
Most MPs with misgivings about the bill will be expected to abstain rather than vote against, keeping their powder dry for the votes next week where amendments will be tabled.
Asked whether Tory MPs who rebelled could lose the whip, Johnson’s spokesman said this was a political consideration rather than a question for him, but stressed what he said was the importance of Conservatives backing the bill.
“This is a piece of legislation that delivers a vital legal safety net in order to ensure that the integrity of the United Kingdom can be protected, and it is critical that MPs pass this bill before the end of the year,” he said.
Asked whether it would thus be treated in effect as a confidence issue for the government, he replied: “As I said, it’s critical that we get this legislation passed and on the statute books before the end of the year.”
More Tory MPs said on Monday they planned to abstain on the legislation with a number hoping the government will back an amendment next week by the chair of the justice select committee, Bob Neill, another former barrister, which would require parliamentary approval before any future decision could be made by the government to disapply the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.
Those backing the amendment include the former cabinet minister Damian Green, the QC and former justice minister Oliver Heald and Northern Ireland select committee chair Simon Hoare and Damian Collins, the former chair of the culture select committee, all expected to withhold support for the bill.
Ellwood said the amendment was “a face-saving way the government could allow us to advance this”.
Others who may abstain on Monday night include the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, and the former transport minister George Freeman. Others may rebel outright but they are expected to be fewer in number. The veteran Tory Sir Roger Gale has been one of the most vocally angry, saying: “An Englishman’s word used to be his bond. Under Johnson that is not so.”
One senior backbencher against the bill said there were tactics being used by the whips to scare those who were uncomfortable. “Unfortunately this is being framed as being pro or against Brexit again, even whether you are patriotic,” the MP said. “Cox’s intervention should prevent it descending into those shallow waters.
“They are now leaning heavily on loyalty to the prime minister – and there are many people who do want to go back into government and they will be tested today, there’s no question.”
Another MP who was undecided said some saw the House of Lords as a way out. “It hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of passing there – not with Michael Howard and Norman Lamont opposed – and we have a minority there anyway.”
There is consternation even among loyal long-serving Conservatives who are planning to back the government. One former cabinet minister said they would only back the bill “through gritted teeth”.
All five living former prime ministers have expressed concern about the bill, as well as former Conservative leaders William Hague and Michael Howard.
On Monday, David Cameron said: “Passing an act of parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation is the very, very last thing you should contemplate. It should be an absolute final resort. So, I do have misgivings about what’s being proposed.”
Former Labour prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and former Conservative prime minister John Major all said the bill risked the UK’s international obligation.
Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May has also made clear in parliament she is concerned about the bill’s implication.
e“How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” she said. It remains unclear what the former prime minister, the only one who remains an MP, will do on the legislation itself.
Downing Street has said the prime minister would open the debate on Monday afternoon, a last-minute change from the business secretary, Alok Sharma. Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, will be at the dispatch box for Labour, with Keir Starmer self-isolating after a family member showed symptoms of coronavirus.