'The damage is done': government's threat of breaking Brexit agreement 'utterly disreputable', Jonathan Jones says

Top lawyer who resigned over internal market bill slams government's "completely bonkers and hugely damaging approach"
Photo: Paul Heartfield

Sir Jonathan Jones, who quit as the government’s top lawyer over its threat to use the internal market bill to back out of parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, has said the “damage is done” by the move despite a U-turn on the legislation.

The former head of the Government Legal Department resigned in September as the government was preparing to insert clauses into its internal market bill that Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis admitted would allow it to breach international law “in a limited and specific way”.

Jones has now told CSW the “absolutely bonkers” move had made it impossible to stay in his role. The bill would have allowed the UK to go against elements of the Brexit deal that related to its implementation in Northern Ireland, and given the government the power to override decisions on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Speaking publicly for the first time about his decision, Jones said: “It was quite disgraceful that the government did this. There is no possible justification for it, in my mind, this willingness to break the law… I think it's utterly disreputable. That’s why I resigned.”

“The government introduced its own explanation for what it was doing… and I completely disagree with it,” he said, citing comments by Lewis and attorney general Suella Braverman. In a parliamentary debate on the bill, Braverman said the legislation was a “prudent step to create a legal safety net and to take powers in reserve, whereby ministers can guarantee the integrity of the UK and protect the peace process”.

Jones, who was Treasury solicitor and GLD permanent secretary for six and a half years, said he had made it “pretty clear” to ministers and then-cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill that he would be forced to quit if the government pressed ahead with the legislation.

As it became clear that the government was considering the option of legislating to override the withdrawal agreement, other officials had become “very concerned about the direction that the government was going in”.

“Some of those concerns were being raised to me and I shared them,” he said.

“I did what I could to head off this response by the government. Obviously I failed and so the clauses were introduced.”

GLD announced on 8 September that Jones had resigned but would not comment further. Since the announcement, he has been serving a three-month notice period that ended on 7 December.

The following day, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the government would drop the offending clauses from the internal market bill after talks with European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.

Jones told CSW he was glad the “threat has been withdrawn”, but added: “To my mind the damage is done.”

“The point is that the government, by introducing the clauses, was saying publicly that it was prepared, avowedly, to break the terms of the treaty which it had concluded and indeed, implemented into UK law only months before. That seemed to me to be disgraceful,” he said.

“My own view, aside from the legal principle involved, is that it was also just a completely bonkers, and hugely damaging approach, for the policy and the negotiations.

“What kind of message is it sending, both to the EU but also to all the other countries with whom we want to be negotiating trade agreements or any agreements, that we’re prepared to rip them up if we don’t like them months later? That seems to me to be a really terrible message.”

Jones said that while he regretted the circumstances that led up to it, he had not “for one minute” regretted his decision to step down.

“Obviously, I regret the fact that any British government was prepared to do that, because of what it says about its attitude to the rule of law and its commitment to international obligations that it has entered into,” he told CSW.

“I also regretted it personally because I didn’t particularly want to leave... But I don’t regret resigning. In the event, it was the right thing to do.”

He said that while the press attention that accompanied his resignation had meant the following days had not been a “comfortable period”, he had received a huge influx of support.

“The reaction for the legal profession, perhaps unsurprisingly, was very supportive. And I got probably thousands of messages from civil servants and colleagues, but also lawyers, and – I would never name them but – serving judges and former judges and politicians saying I'd done a good thing.

“That's not why I did it. But overall, the coverage and the reaction was supportive not negative.”

Earlier this month, when the UK agreed to remove the relevant clauses from the internal market bill, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the government stood by its decision to insert them in the first place to “safeguard the territorial integrity of our country”.

“We needed to make sure that if we didn’t secure agreement with the European Commission on these important questions that we reserve the right as a fail safe mechanism to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom,” he told the BBC.

An exclusive interview with Sir Jonathan Jones will appear in the upcoming January issue of CSW.

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