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Minister quits in row over controversial Brexit bill

Written by on 16 September 2020

A government minister has quit in the row over Boris Johnson’s bid to potentially break international law by overriding the Brexit deal.

Lord Keen of Elie, the advocate general for Scotland, had reportedly handed in his resignation earlier on Wednesday.

The prime minister appeared to suggest he was trying to convince the peer to stay on in his post, telling a committee that afternoon that “conversations on that matter are still continuing”.

But Downing Street has now confirmed that Lord Keen had stepped down, with a spokesperson adding: “The prime minister thanks him for his service.”

It follows the government’s admission that proposed Brexit legislation would break international law.

The UK Internal Market Bill, which cleared its first parliamentary hurdle to becoming law earlier this week, has been heavily criticised in both Westminster and Brussels.

The EU has threatened legal action and said it could threaten ongoing trade talks on a future EU-UK relationship.

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Shortly after Lord Keen’s resignation, Mr Johnson partially climbed down on his controversial bill – and promised to give disgruntled backbenchers another vote before any of the powers are used.

However, this is on the condition that they pass the Internal Market Bill when it is due to complete its Commons journey early next week.

MPs vote through Brexit bill

Sky’s deputy political editor Sam Coates said Lord Keen “was one of the government’s law officers – he was charged with executing legal duties”, adding: “He clearly felt he could not stay in post while the government is pushing through legislation which will break international law.”

Coates explained: “He earlier submitted his resignation and during that time it appears ministers were trying to talk him out of leaving the government – but conveniently, after the prime minister had finished in front of the Liaison Committee of MPs, Downing Street announced he had gone.

“It appears Downing Street and the government are very keen to know that their plans will continue to breach international law and that was something that this law officer could not continue to tolerate. It puts further pressure on other law officers, including Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and Attorney General Suella Braverman.”

Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons that the bill, if passed, would reinterpret the Northern Ireland Protocol – a key part of the withdrawal agreement – and so break international law “in a very specific and limited way”.

However, in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Lord Keen told peers that the bill does not “constitute a breach of international law or of the rule of law”.

He also claimed Mr Lewis had “essentially answered the wrong question” when asked about the bill in the Commons.

“I have satisfied myself as to the correct legal position in this context,” Lord Keen said.

But on Wednesday morning, Mr Lewis contradicted Lord Keen’s assertion and said his comments in the Commons last week were “absolutely in line” with the government’s legal advice on the matter.

He said: “I gave a very straight answer to parliament last week in line with the attorney general’s position.

“My position is absolutely in line with the legal advice that the attorney general put out.”

Minister admits new bill will break law

Speaking to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mr Lewis added: “I read out something very specific because I wanted to ensure that what I said… to make sure that I was giving the House a straight answer.”

In Brussels on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her annual State of the Union speech to warn the UK cannot unilaterally set aside the withdrawal agreement.

“This withdrawal agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it line by line, word by word, and together we succeeded,” she said.

“The European Union and the UK jointly agreed that it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland and we will never backtrack on that.

“This agreement has been ratified by this house and the House of Commons. It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded, disapplied.

“This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”

Mrs von der Leyen said Margaret Thatcher had always insisted the UK honoured its treaty commitments.

She quoted the former UK prime minister as saying: “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade.”

Mrs von der Leyen added: “This was true then and this is true today. Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”

A top civil servant and the government’s most senior lawyer had already quit over the row at Westminster over the UK Internal Market Bill.

Sir Jonathan Jones, permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, will leave his post before his five-year term was due to end next April.