Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans came under fierce fire today after a Cabinet minister admitted that they would break international law as the Pound plunged on fear of No Deal.
In an extraordinary days of developments on Brexit, Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the Government Legal Department, resigned amid reported anger over suggestions that the Prime Minister is planning to override elements of the “divorce pact” from the EU.
Ministers are understood to be planning to push legislation through the Commons that could reduce the need for customs checks in the Irish Sea and arrangements on new state aid rules in the event of trade talks with the European Union collapsing.
In comments which left MPs astonished, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis appeared to admit that the move would break international law by taking unilateral action after the Government had signed the Withdrawal Agreement.
Sir Bob Neill, Tory chairman of the Commons justice committee, challenged Mr Lewis over the plans.
He said: “The Secretary of State has said that he is committed and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable?
“Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into?”
Mr Lewis replied: “I would say to (Sir Bob Neill) that yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.
“We are taking the power to dis-apply the EU concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in a certain, very tightly defined circumstances.”
He added that “there are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change”.
However, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy tweeted: “Astounded to hear the Northern Ireland Secretary calmly confirm the UK Government’s plans do break international law.
“The rule of law keeps us safe, defends our national interest, and allows us to hold others to account. They are diminishing us on the world stage.”
Tory former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the Government was “quite within its rights” to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement.
Former Prime Minister Mrs May, though, voiced concerns as the UK’s and EU top Brexit negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, were holding crunch talks to try to break a deadlock in the negotiations over a trade deal.
She stressed: “The UK Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol, this Parliament voted that Withdrawal Agreement into UK legislation.
“The Government is now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, 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?”
Mr Lewis replied: “We have worked with the EU in a spirit of good faith and I know we continue to do that, both sides working in a spirit of good faith to ensure we do implement the arrangements which uphold the fundamental principles that lie behind the protocol, and of course our first priority continues to be to secure agreement on the protocol for the joint committee and the wider free trade agreement.
“But the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol are not like any other treaty, it was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached between us and the EU on the detail.
“That is the entire purpose of the specialised joint committee and we continue to believe that that is possible, but as a responsible government we cannot allow businesses to not have certainty for January.”
Earlier in the day it had emerged that Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the Government Legal Department, had quit, raising further questions over the legality of the Government’s actions.
His departure marks the latest in a string of resignations of top civil servants, some of who have been forced out as No10 top adviser Dominic Cummings seeks to push through reform of Whitehall.
Mr Johnson’s administration has disregarded protocol over Brexit and was even found to have unlawfully closed down Parliament as it tried to get its Brexit blueprint through.
The Pound plunged this morning against the US dollar as fears over a no-deal Brexit intensified following the shock departure of the Government’s legal head.
Sterling tumbled 1.6 per cent to just over 1.30 US dollars – the lowest level for nearly a month and the steepest fall since the Black Monday falls seen in March, according to experts.
The pound was also down heavily against the euro, falling 1.5 per cent to 1.11 euros.
Experts warned the Pound could be sent into freefall once again if the Prime Minister’s stand-off with the EU worsens.
Sebastien Clements, currency analyst at international payments company OFX, said: “It looks like the wheels of the Brexit bus are finally falling off.”
The Government is pinning its hopes that a series of free trade deals, including with the US, will help to make up for some of the feared loss of business with the European bloc due to new barriers.
But Mr Johnson was also warned today that his hopes of a free trade deal with Donald Trump face being torpedoed in the US Congress if he “violates” the Good Friday Agreement.
The threat was levelled by US congressmen sympathetic to the Republic of Ireland’s fears that the Prime Minister is using the Irish border issue as a bargaining chip in this weeks’ talks with the European Union.
Brendan Boyle, a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives, said: “If the UK in leaving the European Union, which is fully their right to do, in such a way that it violates the Good Friday Agreement, there will be no US-UK Free Trade Agreement, period.”