MPs have backed Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill which seeks to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty.
The legislation cleared its first Commons hurdle as it was backed by 340 votes to 263 – a government majority of 77.
The Bill, which ministers have admitted breaks international law by effectively reneging on aspects of the Brexit deal the Prime Minister struck with Brussels last year, now goes onto a second reading.
Both the UK and the EU signed up to the so-called Northern Ireland protocol within the withdrawal treaty that seeks to keep Belfast in customs alignment with Brussels in key areas to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Campaigning in last year’s general election, Johnson repeatedly described the Brexit deal as “a great deal” and “oven-ready”.
But No 10 now says new legislation is needed to clear up aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol, despite threats of legal action from the European Union.
As well as the issues around Northern Ireland, the Scottish and Welsh governments have blasted the Bill as an “abomination” and an “assault” on devolution which steals powers from Edinburgh and Cardiff.
The row around devolution centres on the return of powers to the UK from Brussels, some of which fall in areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
UK ministers say Scotland will be getting more than 100 new powers but Nicola Sturgeon’s government insists the legislation would allow Westminster to effectively overrule them in some devolved policy areas.
And No 10 has said the Bill would enable it to directly fund projects in Scotland even if they fall under devolved matters – against the wishes of Scottish ministers.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Johnson said the legislation would “help deliver the single biggest transfer of powers to the devolved administrations since their creation”.
He added the Bill is necessary to prevent the EU taking an “extreme and unreasonable” interpretation of the provisions in the withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
The PM said some in Brussels were now threatening to block UK agrifood exports to the EU and to insist on tariffs on all goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Johnson opened the debate by insisting the Bill is “essential for guaranteeing the economic and political integrity of the United Kingdom”.
He said: “I regret to have to tell the House that in recent months the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths using the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that goes well beyond common sense simply to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free trade agreement.
“To take the most glaring example, the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to their satisfaction, they might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU.
“And it gets even worse. Because under this protocol that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“Our interlocutors on the other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agriculture transports within our own country.”
The Prime Minister added the EU has yet to take “that revolver” off the table.
However some senior Conservatives, including Johnson’s former chancellor Sajid Javid, warned they could not support the Bill in its present form as it breaches international law.
And Labour’s Ed Miliband, standing in for opposition leader Keir Starmer who is self-isolating after a family member developed coronavirus symptoms, castigated Johnson for a “failure of governance”.
Speaking at the despatch box, Miliband accused the Prime Minister of “legislative hooliganism” and said he had ignored warnings over how the Northern Ireland Protocol works, which has mediation measures laid out in it for any future disputes.
He told the Commons: “Let’s just get this straight for a minute, because I think it is important to take a step back.
“What the Prime Minister is coming to the House to tell us today is that his flagship achievement, the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said, as I said, was oven ready, the deal (on) which he fought and won the general election is now contradictory and ambiguous.
“What incompetence. What failure of governance. And how dare he try and blame everyone else.
“Can I say to the Prime Minister, this time he can’t blame (Theresa May), he can’t blame John Major, he can’t blame the judges, he can’t blame the civil servants, he can’t sack the Cabinet secretary again.
“There’s only one person responsible for it, and that is him. This is his deal, it’s his mess, it’s his failure.”
He went on: “For the first time in his life, it is time to take responsibility, it is time to fess up.
“Either he wasn’t straight with the country about the deal in the first place or he didn’t understand it.
“Because a competent government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions it could not live with.
“And if such a government somehow missed the point but woke up later, it would have done what any competent business would do after it realised it can’t live with the terms of a contract, it would negotiate a way out in good faith.
“And that’s why this is all so unnecessary – because there is a mechanism designed for exactly this purpose in the agreement, the joint committee on the Northern Ireland protocol.”
Labour’s amendment to block the Bill at second reading was selected by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle for consideration but defeated by MPs.
The SNP’s Pete Wishart took the Bill to task over its potential impact on devolution.
The MP, chair of the Commons Scottish affairs select committee, said: “Never before has there been such a sustained attack on our parliament or our democracy.
“The invention and development of the idea of a UK single market has been one of the most spectacular, dishonest pieces of political chicanery we have ever witnessed in recent times.
“The bare-faced nonsense of this being a power surge is contradicted by practically every detail of this Bill.”
Wishart said clause 46 of the Bill allows the UK Government to “legislate directly in devolved responsibilities,” adding: “It’s a mechanism designed to bypass the Scottish Government.”
However, new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who backed the Bill, denied it was a power grab.
He said: “It cannot be a power grab when over 100 extra powers are going to Holyrood, going to the Scottish Parliament, going to the Scottish Government and not one is being taken away.”
Ross added: “This Bill at its heart, at its core, at its centre is about jobs and businesses and isn’t it telling tonight that in all the SNP speeches I’ve listened to, jobs and businesses have not been mentioned once?”
MPs will begin detailed line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill on Tuesday, with votes expected next week on amendments to the Northern Ireland provisions which some Tories may back.
The Bill looks to replace the EU Common Market – which for EU members governs things such as food and environmental standards and energy efficiency regulations – with a new UK-wide internal market.