PM’s Brexit plan ‘does break international law’ as top legal adviser quits

Boris Johnson’s reported bid to override parts of his Brexit deal “does break international law”, a minister has admitted – as the head of the government’s legal department quit over his concerns about the move.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis made the confession to MPs in the Commons, but insisted the legal breach would be in a “very specific and limited way”.

It came after Jonathan Jones resigned as one of Whitehall’s most senior legal advisers, following concerns Downing Street may be trying to undermine parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, according to Whitehall sources.

The move means six top civil servants have now stood down this year, including the heads of several departments and the cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

Lord Charlie Falconer, Labour’s shadow attorney general, said Mr Jones was an “impressive lawyer and very decent person”.

He added: “This resignation indicates that senior government lawyers think that the government are about to break the law.

“The government is trashing the best of the UK; we are a law abiding country and the government have some serious questions to answer.”

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Sir Jonathan Jones
Image: Sir Jonathan Jones was head of the government legal department

The fresh row over Brexit centres on the as-yet unpublished Internal Market Bill, which the Financial Times quoted a source as saying would be used to “clearly and consciously” undermine the divorce deal with Brussels.

Mr Lewis was asked directly by a Tory MP to confirm that “nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international obligations”.

To some shock, he replied: “Yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

The minister explained it was because the government was trying to “disapply” EU law and added there are “clear precedents for the UK and other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change”.

MP Liz Saville-Roberts holds a copy of the Withdrawal Agreement outside the Houses of Parliament in London ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivering a statement in the House of Commons on his new Brexit deal after the EU Council summit, on what has been dubbed "Super Saturday".
Image: The row focuses on the divorce agreement – not a future trade deal

Former prime minister Theresa May made her displeasure clear, asking how the UK could “reassure future international partners” that it “can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs”.

And Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, tweeted: “Britain’s soft power and respected voice on the international stage comes from our duty & resolve to defend & uphold international laws.

“This cannot change as we secure Brexit – otherwise our stance in holding China/Russia/Iran etc to account and upgrading the rules-based order is severely weakened.”

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said she was “astounded” at Mr Lewis’ admission.

“The rule of law keeps us safe, defends our national interest, and allows us to hold others to account,” she said, accusing ministers of “diminishing us on the world stage”.

The UK left the EU on 31 January but is continuing to follow its rules until the end of 2020 during a “transition period”, while negotiators try to hammer out a trade deal to replace existing arrangements on things like tariffs.

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