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Boris Johnson Faces Lords Fight After Giving Ground to Brexit Rebels

Joe Mayes and Thomas Penny

(Bloomberg) --

Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a battle in the House of Lords over his controversial plan to break international law over Brexit despite making concessions to buy off rebels in the House of Commons.

Former Tory leader Michael Howard, himself a Brexiter, promised a “rough passage” for the bill when it reaches the upper chamber and said his fellow Lords -- who have the power to delay the legislation by as much as a year -- are “highly likely” to block it as a point of principle.

“It invites Parliament to use its sovereignty to break international law and I don’t think Parliament should be asked to do that,” Howard said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Anna Edwards. “On this issue, that’s so fundamental and such an issue of principle, the Lords may well insist on blocking the bill.”

On Wednesday, Johnson agreed to give the House of Commons a veto over whether the government can exercise its proposed powers to override parts of the Brexit divorce treaty after meeting Conservative MPs who were threatening to rebel against him. Howard spurned those concessions, and said he expects the Lords, where the government doesn’t have a majority, will reject the bill by a large margin.

Johnson’s plan has prompted threats of legal action from the European Union and been widely criticized for damaging Britain’s reputation for respecting international agreements. On Wednesday, one of the government’s most senior law officers quit over the legality of the bill.

“I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what I consider to be my obligations as a Law Officer with your policy intentions,” Advocate General for Scotland Richard Keen said in a resignation letter. He said the government faces challenges “on a number of fronts” and that Johnson’s legislation “will not make these any easier.”

‘Clear Limits’

However, by appeasing the doubters in his own party, Johnson appeared to have seen off a Commons rebellion and boosted his chances of passing the legislation, ramping up tensions with the EU.

How Johnson Is Risking U.K.’s Reputation, Trade Deals: QuickTake

The danger is that the deteriorating atmosphere between the two sides jeopardizes ongoing trade negotiations, and the threat of a disruptive no-trade-deal Brexit -- meaning tariffs and quotas on commerce, plus an economic shock -- is looming.

Johnson’s moves have also prompted concern from across the Atlantic, with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden becoming the latest senior U.S. figure to warn that a U.K.-U.S. trade accord would be conditional on the Good Friday Agreement being upheld, which has secured peace in Northern Ireland.

The government also said it would amend its Internal Market Bill to set “clear limits” on the “scope and timeliness of judicial review into these powers,” attempting to insulate itself from the kinds of protracted legal battles that have been a feature of the Brexit saga.

Why Ireland’s Border Remains a Brexit Sticking Point: QuickTake

Johnson added to the tensions with the EU on Wednesday by saying he didn’t believe the bloc was negotiating in good faith in their trade talks and that he would impose “formidable” tariffs on EU products if a free-trade agreement could not be agreed this year.

“We’re very hopeful our friends and partners will see the logic of reaching an agreement,” Johnson said to a panel of lawmakers in Parliament. “We will wait and see what they do.”

In other Brexit developments:

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis wouldn’t confirm that Britain would abide by the U.K.-EU arbitration mechanism in the Brexit divorce treatyEuropean Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the chances of a trade deal with the U.K. are fadingA major logistics group said that a key IT system for avoiding border chaos would not be ready in time for the end of the Brexit transition period

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