UK government legal chief quits over Brexit row

By on 09/09/2020
A government source reportedly said Downing Street's attempt to row back on parts of the agreement was part of the preparation for a no-deal exit that would present a number of new barriers to trade from Northern Ireland. (Photo by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street via flickr).

The head of the UK government’s legal department has resigned over prime minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

Sir Jonathan Jones, the Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary at the Government Legal Department, did not explain his decision in his resignation letter.

However, two officials with knowledge of the situation told the Financial Times (FT) on Tuesday that he was leaving the civil service due to a dispute with Downing Street over its plans to challenge parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Those close to him told the FT Jones was “very unhappy” about the situation.

The UK left the European Union on 31 January but is continuing to follow its rules until the end of the transition period on 31 December, at which point Britain will either leave the EU without a trade deal or move to a new negotiated arrangement. The withdrawal agreement, signed in January, includes legally binding elements of the special arrangements for Northern Ireland which, unlike the rest of the UK, will effectively remain in the EU’s customs union.

Internal Market Bill

Sources told the FT that Jones was concerned that government plans to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement are in breach of international law. Those plans came to light on Wednesday when the Internal Market Bill was published. According to Sky News, key components of the bill may contradict the withdrawal agreement by letting ministers hand themselves the power to determine rules on state aid and goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, should negotiations between the UK and EU on a free trade agreement fail.

The draft legislation says: “Certain provisions to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law.” It adds any parts of the Brexit deal that contradict it “cease to be recognised and available in domestic law”.

A UK government source told The Guardian prior to the publication of the bill that the attempt to row back on parts of the agreement is part of the preparation for a no-deal exit that would present a number of new barriers to trade from Northern Ireland.

The move has been condemned by a number of politicians, including former Tory PMs Theresa May and John Major, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon and EU Council president Ursula Von-der Leyen.

A ‘real loss to government’

In a tweet, former Cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service Lord O’Donnell described Jonathan Jones as a “formidable lawyer of great integrity” and said that his leaving is a “real loss to the government”.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA union that represents senior civil servants, told the FT that Jones’s departure was “an extraordinary decision of principle” that represented “the very best values of an impartial and professional civil service”.

“Civil servants, like ministers, have an obligation to uphold the rule of law: the ministerial and civil service code are both unequivocal on this,” he said. “It is, therefore, all the more extraordinary that the government’s most senior legal adviser has decided he has no choice but to resign over an issue that he presumably believes conflicts with his own and ministerial obligations, to act within both the spirit and letter of the law.”

Latest in a spate of high-profile departures

Jones – who became head of the government’s legal department in 2014, having previously worked as a legal adviser and solicitor at the Home Office, the Attorney-General’s Office and the Department for Education – is the sixth senior civil servant to leave the UK civil service in recent months.

Cabinet secretary, head of the UK civil service and national security adviser Sir Mark Sedwill is to stand down this month as part of a major Whitehall shake-up orchestrated by the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings and minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove. He is to be replaced by Simon Case.

Sir Simon McDonald stepped down as permanent secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this month at the request of the PM, ahead of the department’s merger with the Department for International Development; education department permanent secretary Jonathan Slater was sacked on 26 August following the chaos caused by an algorithm used to determine exam results; and Sir Richard Heaton resigned as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice in July.

In February, meanwhile, Sir Philip Rutnam quit as permanent secretary of the Home Office, announcing he would take the Home Secretary Priti Patel to an employment tribunal. He said there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him – accusations Patel has denied.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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