The UK is preparing legislation which will “break international law in a very specific and limited way,” a cabinet minister has said in the House of Commons.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made the comment Tuesday in response to a question concerning legislation to be published on Wednesday, which critics fear would alter the contents of the Brexit deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed with the European Union last autumn.
The comment came one day after the government was forced to play down reports in the British media that it was seeking to alter elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the deal that Johnson’s government reached with Brussels last year, designed to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
A UK government official told reporters on Monday that the government “is completely committed, as it always has been, to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in good faith,” adding that “we are making minor clarifications in extremely specific areas to ensure that, as we implement the protocol, we are doing so in a way that allows ministers to always uphold and protect the Good Friday peace agreement.”
However, government attempts to calm audiences at home, in Brussels and around the world appear to have failed. Former Prime Minister Theresa May, who negotiated the bulk of the Brexit deal, formally known as the Withdrawal Agreement, asked in the Commons chamber: “How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?”
The controversy intensified on Tuesday after the Financial Times reported that Jonathan Jones, the head of the UK government’s legal department, resigned, reportedly over “a dispute with Downing Street over its plans to challenge parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.”
While CNN was unable to independently verify Jones’ reason for resigning, Downing Street did not deny the claims in the report, and a government spokesperson said “I can confirm that he is stepping down and we would thank him for his years of hard service and wish him well for the future.”
The spokesperson would not confirm whether Jones had signed off on the government’s planned legislation, nor if the government had sought his legal advice.
Downing Street has confirmed that the Internal Market Bill, due to be published on Wednesday, will contain clauses that are designed to ensure all that trade between the four countries of the United Kingdom will be unfettered and that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK’s customs territory. The government has repeatedly claimed that its plan is merely to clear up ambiguities in the Northern Ireland Protocol and that the UK is still working with the EU to find an acceptable solution to the Irish border question.
However, Lewis’ admission that the legislation will breach international law will set off alarm bells in Brussels. An EU diplomat told CNN on Monday that the “withdrawal agreement has been signed and ratified by the UK and the EU, it is in force … If the UK chose not to respect it, then theoretically the EU would have to take legal measures.”