Why the government’s most senior lawyer resigned

When Sir Jonathan Jones announced his resignation as head of the Government Legal Department yesterday, he gave no reason for his abrupt departure. But there was little doubt about what led to his decision.

The “baby-faced former barrister” had long questioned the legality of the government’s Brexit strategy, The Telegraph reports. Increasingly unhappy, he “had made that clear to his inner circle in recent days”.

In the end, he “quit over Boris Johnson’s proposal to row back on parts of last year’s Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland”, says the Financial Times.

Hours later, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis conceded that Johnson’s plan “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”.

The admission “led to a torrent of criticism”, says The Guardian, “including from the former prime minister Theresa May, who questioned whether Boris Johnson was risking the UK’s international reputation as a trustworthy nation”.

According to the Financial Times, Jones had previously made a private request for independent legal advice to establish whether the government might be “in breach of the ministerial code that obliges ministers to follow the law”.

And in February, he had publicly reiterated the importance of respecting international obligations.

“Fundamentally, international law is the law,” he told the Institute for Government. “It derives from obligations the government has entered into through treaty. The government is subject to the rule of law and will comply with those obligations.”

By then, he had “come close to resigning” once already, says The Telegraph, when the government said it might ignore the Benn Act, which would have forced Johnson to ask Brussels for a Brexit extension if no deal could be agreed.

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“One source said he had decided against it after concluding that despite briefings to the media, the government did not in fact intend to break the law,” the paper reports.

This time, he seems to have reached the opposite conclusion.


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