Boris Johnson’s plan to redraw the boundaries of last year’s EU withdrawal agreement “does break international law”, a Cabinet minister has admitted.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs that the prime minister’s plan to override parts of the Brexit deal did in a “very specific and limited way” break the law.
His remarks came just hours after Jonathan Jones, the head of the UK Government’s legal department, quit in protest against the government’s actions.
The row centres on the as-yet unpublished Internal Market Bill, which many see as a vehicle to “clearly and consciously” undermine the divorce deal with Brussels.
Downing Street previously said it would be using the Bill to make “minor clarifications” to ensure Britain was ready for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in December, the admission from Mr Lewis that the changes will amount to a breach of international law has caused consternation in Westminster and Brussels.
Former prime minister Theresa May warned the move would damage “trust” in the UK over future trade deals with other states.
Tory MP Sir Bob Neil, who chairs the justice committee, said: “Any breach, or potential breach, of the international legal obligations we have entered into is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s in a ‘specific’ or ‘limited way’.
“Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable.”
Orkney and Shetland Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael said Mr Lewis’ comments were a “gross breach of ministerial code”.
“We cannot have lawless ministers. By stating at the despatch box that the government will break the law, Brandon Lewis has shown himself unfit for office,” he said. “He must resign and the prime minister must renounce illegal behaviour.”
France’s former Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau MEP, said: “You don’t break international law in a specific and limited way. You do break it or you don’t. You can’t be half illegal, as you can’t be half pregnant.”
Former Scottish secretary @amcarmichaelMP has said Brandon Lewis' comments amount to a breach of the ministerial code.
"We cannot have lawless ministers. By stating at the despatch box that the government will break the law, Brandon Lewis has shown himself unfit for office."
— Dan O'Donoghue (@MrDanDonoghue) September 8, 2020
The row comes as the eighth round of post-Brexit trade deal talks between the UK and the EU kicked off in London.
The two sides are trying to secure a deal before the end of the transition period on December 31, which will see the UK going on to World Trade Organisation rules if no agreement is reached.
A key sticking point in the talks has been fisheries, with the EU demanding “status quo” access to UK waters and an effective continuation of the common fisheries policy after Brexit.
The SNP have been accused of making negotiations in this area more difficult, after it emerged Scottish Government ministers had told EU officials that Britain needed “move a bit” and soften its position on fishing rights.
“It is pure treachery for the SNP to sell out Scotland’s fishing industry by backing Brussels over the UK Government in trade negotiations,” Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said.
“The SNP have made it clear again that in the fight for control of Scotland’s fishing waters, they are on team Brussels.”
North-east MP Andrew Bowie added: “You cannot overstate the damage the common fisheries policy and European management has done to our region.
“This is the system the Scottish National Party would have us sign back up to. The Conservative Party will not let the people of the north-east down.”
A spokesman for Mike Russell, the Scottish constitutional relations secretary, said that the Scottish Government has sought to protect every sector “including our coastal communities” since the 2016 vote to leave the EU — 62 per cent of Scottish voters backed remain.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford added: “I don’t think we’ll take any lessons from the UK Government in standing up for our fishing interests.
“The debacle that we’ve faced over the last few decades goes back to Ted Heath’s selling out of fishermen when we entered the European Union.
“Scottish ministers will always have meetings with counterparts in order to make sure that we’re standing up for the rights of Scotland in any negotiations.”
Mr Blackford added that he was “appalled” by moves to change the withdrawal agreement, he said: “This kind of brinkmanship is deeply offensive, when you’re talking about something which is so important, our future relationship with the rest of Europe you cannot threaten to tear up an international treaty.”
“To see a UK Government that is prepared to put the Northern Ireland protocol on the table, again, is beneath contempt.”