Senior law officer quits as PM forced to compromise on Brexit Bill

September 16, 2020 9:20:19 PM

Senior law officer quits as PM forced to compromise on Brexit Bill

Boris Johnson has lost a senior law officer as he was forced into a compromise over controversial plans to break international law by overriding the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The Government will table an amendment to the UK Internal Market Bill, giving MPs a vote before it can use powers which would breach the deal brokered with Brussels last year.

Around 30 Tory rebels were thought to be preparing to vote for an amendment on Tuesday which would have required a Commons vote before the provisions in the Bill relating to Northern Ireland could come into force.

Downing Street relented and announced in a joint statement with Conservative MPs Sir Bob Neill and Damian Green that it would seek to amend the Bill to require the Commons to vote before a minister can use the “notwithstanding” powers contained within it.

The statement said: “Following constructive talks over the last few days, the Government has agreed to table an amendment for Committee Stage.

“This amendment will require the House of Commons to vote for a motion before a minister can use the ‘notwithstanding’ powers contained in the UK Internal Market Bill.

“The Internal Market Bill was designed to give MPs and peers a vote on the use of these powers via statutory instrument.

“But following talks, it is agreed that the parliamentary procedure suggested by some colleagues provides a clearer, more explicit democratic mandate for the use of these powers, and also provides more legal certainty.

“The Government will table another amendment which sets clear limits on the scope and timeliness of judicial review into the exercise of these powers. This will provide people and businesses with the certainty that they need.

“We welcome the way the Parliamentary Party has come together on these issue. There is near-unanimous agreement that the Government must be able to use these powers as a final resort, that there must be legal certainty, and that no further amendments are required on these powers.”

Lord Keen
Lord Keen (Aaron Chown/PA)

It came after the Government’s top law officer for Scotland resigned amid reports he was unhappy about the plans to override the Withdrawal Agreement.

Lord Keen of Elie QC, the Advocate General, tendered his resignation to the Prime Minister on Wednesday morning.

In his resignation letter, he said: “Over the past week I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what I consider to be my obligations as a Law Officer with your policy intentions with respect to the UKIM Bill.

“I have endeavoured to identify a respectable argument for the provisions at clauses 42 to 45 of the Bill but it is now clear that this will not meet your policy intentions.

“In these circumstances I consider that it is my duty to tender my resignation from your Government.

“Your Government faces challenges on a number of fronts and I fear that the UKIM Bill in its present form will not make these any easier. I wish you well in dealing with these issues.”

A Downing Street spokesman said: “Lord Keen has resigned as Advocate General for Scotland. The Prime Minister thanks him for his service.”

Boris Johnson gives evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee
Boris Johnson gives evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee (House of Commons/PA)

The announcement came less than two hours after Boris Johnson was unable to tell MPs whether the peer was still in his Government.

Giving evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister said: “As far as I know, conversations on that matter are continuing.”

The Government has already seen the departure of the head of the Government Legal Department, Sir Jonathan Jones, who quit last week as the Bill was announced.

Labour’s shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said: “This has been a week of chaos from the Government’s own law officers, whose legal advice has been renounced by its own Government and the voice of the law officers has been muted, and their authority is completely shot.

“This has been a farce that shames the entire Government.”

SNP justice and home affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry said: “I am pleased that Lord Keen has finally decided to do the right thing and offer his resignation.

“No Scottish law officer could possibly reconcile the lack of regard Boris Johnson and his Government has for the rule of law with his or her obligation as an officer of the Scottish courts.

“It shows, yet again, that this Tory Government cannot be trusted.

“The UK Government will find it hard to find any member of the Scottish Bar to replace Lord Keen as Advocate General as long as it is intent on breaking international law.”

Regarding the compromise agreement between the Government and Tory critics of the Bill, shadow business secretary and former Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “This does not fix the problem of breaking the law, damaging our reputation around the world and damaging our future prosperity.

“We need a trade deal with Europe and that is what we were promised at the election. Breaking our own word and the treaty the Prime Minister signed puts that at risk.

“On the basis of tonight’s statement, this Bill still breaks international law, reopens the Brexit debate and Labour will continue to oppose it.”

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