Johnson risks rift with Biden by pressing ahead with Brexit bill

By Jessica Elgot Deputy political editor

Boris Johnson has risked opening a rift with the US president-elect, Joe Biden, by insisting the internal markets bill that reneges on part of the EU withdrawal agreement would go ahead as planned.

The prime minister said the legislation would go through parliament and added that the planned changes, which would hand unilateral power to ministers to change or disapply export rules for goods traveling from Britain to Northern Ireland, would protect the Good Friday peace deal.

“The whole point of that bill and indeed the finance bill is to protect and uphold the Good Friday agreement and the peace process in Northern Ireland. And again, that’s one of the things that we’re united on with our friends in the White House,” he said.

Biden, who has Irish roots, has expressed negative views on the UK’s plans to override parts of the agreement if no deal is reached with the bloc.

During the campaign, Biden said that “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border”.

Johnson, who has not yet spoken to Biden, said there was “far more that unites the government of this country and government in Washington any time, any stage, than divides us” – despite a series of sceptical comments made by Biden and his allies about the prime minister.

The House of Lords is expected to vote this week to remove parts of the internal markets bill that would break international law by removing some of the commitments in the agreement, something Labour has challenged the government to concede.

Biden has previously called Johnson the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump” and allies of the new Democratic administration have been scathing about the UK prime minister.

Tommy Vietor, the former national security spokesman for Barack Obama, commenting on the prime minister’s congratulatory message to Biden, tweeted that Johnson was a “shapeshifting creep” and added: “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.”

Johnson said there was much the pair could work on, including climate change. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, exited the Paris climate agreement, which Biden has said he will renew.

“I think now with President Biden in the White House in Washington, we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change,” he said.

“I see that President Biden shares a slogan, ‘Build Back Better’ – we claim no proprietary rights over that slogan. But when you when you come to build back better, one of the ways to do it is to do it through a green industrial revolution.”

Johnson played down any prospect of immediate trade negotiations with the US under Biden. “I’m a keen student of the United States’ trade policy and they’re tough negotiations,” he said. “And I’ve never believed that this was going to be something that was going to be a complete pushover under any US administration. I think there’s a good chance we’ll do something.”

Earlier, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said he would “listen very carefully” to the concerns of US Democrats but said the risk to the Good Friday agreement came from the EU.

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The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality,  which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations  have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.

This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.

The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster "power grab", and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.

It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.

The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent".

The bill passed its first hurdle in parliament by 77 votes, despite a rebellion by some Tory MPs.

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Raab said he was sure diplomats would be able to smooth things over in Washington. “I’m confident we will navigate all of those issues sensitively and correctly,” he told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.

“We listen very carefully to the concerns of our American friends. Particularly on the Hill in the Irish lobby they feel very invested in the Good Friday agreement, we understand that. But it is not the UK that is putting it at risk, it is the EU.”

Raab was also pressed on whether he believed there had been irregularities in the US voting system, after he had tweeted “some of the processes are still playing out” in his congratulatory message to Biden.

“I’m not getting dragged in either to the election campaign or the immediate aftermath,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge. “We want to avoid getting sucked into the US domestic politics but it is very clear now in our view that there is a definitive result.

“There may be some contest claims of irregularities but we’ve always said we have got full faith in the checks and balances of the American system to reach a clear result, and they’ve done that now.”

Asked repeatedly if all votes should be counted in an election, Raab said “in principle, yes, of course” but said he did not want to be drawn into the controversies in the US.

“We really don’t want to get drawn into the cut and thrust, the controversies, the claims, the counter-claims, either in the election or in the immediate aftermath, and that is we respect Americans’ rights to choose for themselves and we respect the checks and balances in the American system which will produce, as they have, a clear result.”