The head of the UK government’s legal department has resigned over Boris Johnson’s proposal to refer to parts of last year’s Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.
Jonathan Jones, a Treasury attorney and permanent secretary in the Government’s Legal Department, is the sixth senior British government official to resign this year, amid mounting tensions between the prime minister and civil servants.
The Attorney General’s office confirmed Sir Jonathan’s departure but declined to provide further details. “We thank him for his long years of service and wish him all the best for the future,” a spokesman for Johnson said.
Sir Jonathan did not explain his decision in a short resignation letter posted online. But two officials familiar with the situation told the Financial Times that he was leaving his post due to a row with Downing Street over its plans to challenge parts of the EU withdrawal agreement.
Those close to Sir Jonathan said he was “extremely unhappy” about the decision to replace parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, as part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, with new powers in the UK Internal Market Bill.
One person familiar with the events that led to Sir Jonathan’s decision to resign said it came after months of tension over the handling of Brexit negotiations and legal disputes with Attorney General Suwela Braverman.
Braverman was appointed in February after Johnson fired former attorney general, Jeffrey Cox, for making what an insider described as “uncomfortable noise” about the importance of adhering to international law.
It is understood that Sir Jonathan was dissatisfied with Mrs. Braverman’s initial interpretation of the legal implications of Brexit without a deal, and sought formal advice from government law officials – Mrs. Braverman, Attorney General Michael Ellis, and Attorney General Robert Buckland.
Two people familiar with the discussions said that questions have been raised about whether the government’s plans to bypass the Brexit agreement violate ministerial law that obliges ministers to follow the law, including international law.
In this case, the law officers’ advice split, as Downing Street decided to accept Braverman’s advice.
It is understood that the government sought external advice specifying the government, while it was free to legislate domestically as it saw fit, it would be in breach of international obligations if it was approved in contravention of the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Jonathan was one of the good guys,” said a person familiar with the internal deliberations. “He is a man of great integrity.”
No. 10 insisted that the new powers were “limited” and were necessary to clarify the protocol agreed upon and signed by Mr. Johnson in October of last year.
The Home Market Bill would place powers in the hands of UK ministers to interpret the Northern Ireland Protocol. But Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, is expected to insist at the Brexit negotiations in London on Tuesday that the UK should fully implement the protocol.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter: “I have confidence that the British government will implement the Withdrawal Agreement, which is an obligation under international law and a prerequisite for any future partnership.
“The Ireland / Northern Ireland protocol is necessary to safeguard peace and stability on the island and the integrity of the single market.”
Theresa May, the former prime minister, criticized the government for its proposals in the House of Commons on Tuesday. “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?” She said.
Sir Jonathan became the head of the legal department of government in 2014, having previously served as a legal advisor and attorney in the Home Office, the Attorney General’s office and the Ministry of Education. He is also a lawyer.
The departure of Sir Jonathan follows the departure of Cabinet Secretary Mark Sidwell and Simon MacDonald from the State Department, Philip Rotnam from the Ministry of the Interior, Richard Heaton from the Ministry of Justice and Jonathan Slater from the Ministry of Education.
Dave Penman, president of the Food and Drug Administration Federation that represents senior civil servants, said Sir Jonathan’s departure was an “exceptional decision of principle” that represents “the best values of an impartial and professional civil service.”
“Civil servants, like ministers, are obligated to support the rule of law: the Ministerial and Civil Service Law is unequivocal in this matter,” he said. “Therefore, it is unusual for the government’s chief legal advisor to decide that he has no choice but to resign on an issue that he presumably believes is inconsistent with his own and his ministerial commitments, and to act within the spirit and letter of the law.”
Attorney General Charlie Falconer in the shadows said, “There has to be something very corrupt about this government” if Sir Jonathan feels the need to resign.
“This resignation indicates that the government’s senior lawyers believe that the government is about to break the law,” he said. “The government is smashing the best of the UK: We are a law-abiding country and the government has some serious questions to answer.”
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, wants civil servants to take more responsibility when politics veers off course, but the failure of any minister to resign during the coronavirus crisis has heightened tensions. Cummings promised a fundamental overhaul of the civil service, and pledged that “torrential rain” would fall in Whitehall.
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