Boris Johnson has appealed to Conservative MPs to support Brexit-related legislation that could breach international law.
During a conference call with about 250 MPs on Friday evening, the prime minister said controversial clauses in the UK Internal Market Bill are “necessary to stop a foreign power from breaking up our country”.
The bill, which overrides parts of the EU divorce deal, was drawn up to ensure trade between all four home nations remains barrier-free after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
However, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the Commons earlier this week that proposed legislation related to Brexit “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
Some senior Conservatives are planning to amend the legislation, and grandees including former party leaders Michael Howard, John Major and Theresa May have spoken out against it.
Lord Howard described the government’s admission that the proposed legislation would break international law as a “very, very sad day”.
The European Commission has given the UK until the end of the month to drop it, and is threatening legal action.
Despite the apparent distance between the two sides, Mr Johnson told MPs there was still a good chance of getting a trade deal with the EU, and urged them not to return to the “miserable, squabbling days of last autumn”.
It is understood there were connection issues and the prime minister did not take questions.
The controversy deepened while the call was going on, with European Parliament leaders saying they would “under no circumstances ratify” any trade deal reached if “UK authorities breach or threaten to breach” the Withdrawal Agreement.
However, the prime minister’s official spokesman said the government’s position remained that provisions within the bill were “critical” to the preservation of the Northern Ireland peace process.
He said the UK would continue to strive for an agreement and called on the EU side to show “more realism”.
The bill returns to the Commons on Monday.
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