Government legal chief Jonathan Jones resigns in row over Brexit deal changes

Government Legal Department head to leave civil service after government prepares to set out legislation that could amend Brexit deal
Paul Heartfield

By Richard Johnstone

08 Sep 2020

The head of the Government Legal Department has resigned, it has been confirmed.

A government spokesperson confirmed this morning that Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the department as well as Treasury solicitor and head of the government legal profession, is to leave government. The FT, which first broke the news, said Jones had resigned over suggestions that the government was proposing to back out of elements of last year’s Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.

It was reported that the government would use sections of the internal market bill around state aid rules and the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that would "eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement" signed last year to ensure there would not be a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Subsequently the government said that the legislation, set to be published tomorrow, would only make "minor clarifications in specific areas".

A GLD spokesperson said: “I can confirm Sir Jonathan has resigned but cannot comment further.”

The announcement of Jones’s departure sparked concerns from former senior government officals. Former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Nick Macpherson said that “for anybody who cares about the rule of law, this is deeply disturbing. Jonathan is a first rate lawyer and a man of principle.”

Alex Thomas, the Institute for Government’s programme director and former civil servant, said: “If reports as to why Jonathan Jones has resigned are true there are HUGE questions for the Attorney General and Lord Chancellor. Will they try to draw a different line on the law?”

Former justice secretary and current shadow attorney general for England and Wales Lord Charlie Falconer said Jones was an “impressive lawyer and very decent person” as well as a “loyal civil servant”.

He added: “If he can’t stay in the public service, there must be something very rotten about this government. Reckless, law breaking, trashing the best of the UK."

Jones was also the civil service’s health and wellbeing champion. In a blog post announcing his new role in 2016, he wrote that it was “hugely important to me that we give priority to the wellbeing of our people, both inside and outside work. Healthy and happy employees are more productive, more engaged and more creative.”

Since then, wellbeing champions have been installed in each department. Jones told CSW earlier this year that departments were encouraging people who are struggling to seek support and “not just to grind themselves down”.

Jones is the latest in a number of permanent secretary departures this year, with top officials leaving government including cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, Foreign Office chief Sir Simon McDonald and Ministry of Justice perm sec Sir Richard Heaton. Earlier this year, Sir Philip Rutnam resigned as Home Office perm sec after complaining that he had been briefed against by allies of home secretary Priti Patel, and has begun a claim against the Home Office for constructive dismissal.

Most recently, the head of the Department for Education, Jonathan Slater, was sacked last month by the prime minister following the row over A-Level grades.

“It’s our job to put the best case forward and we do so with the aim of winning.”

In the last few years, Brexit has been a huge focus of the GLD's work under Jones. In an interview with CSW  last year, he called the tumult caused by Brexit “a completely unique situation”.

“So much of Brexit is about the law, one way or another,” he said. “GLD is so closely involved in all aspects of it, whether it’s the negotiation or the legislation or the court challenges. And so much of this has ended up in court – Brexit is work for us at every turn.”

Jones estimated that around a third of GLD’s work has been Brexit-focused in the last couple of years, adding: “Legally speaking, we’re not in bad shape. We have actually got ready for all these multiple possible scenarios [leaving the EU with or without a deal, under changing deadlines], but it has been really hard work. It’s required people to work very long hours and, in some cases, challenging shifts, and it’s required people to move and so on. But people have been pretty willing to do that.”

But he added: “There’s something very special for lawyers about being involved in something that is legally and constitutionally ground breaking, so there are pluses."

Jones also played a major role in delivering the government's decision to fight a legal case over its controversial efforts to prorogue parliament in the run up to one of last year’s Brexit deadline.

The prorogation was struck down in the Supreme Court, and Jones said said there was “always a chance we’d lose” that case.

“That’s very often true in these very big, complicated, controversial cases. So it’s not as if people feel utterly defeated when we lose. Very often, we’re emotionally prepared for that possibility because it was always on the cards.”

Although government lawyers are always prepared for a loss, “the commitment to winning, to doing our best, is unqualified,” he said.

“Whatever we might think about the pros and cons of a policy or particular case, we are solicitors for the government. It’s our job to put the best case forward and we do so with the aim of winning.”

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