Justice Secretary 'will quit' if ministers break international law in 'unacceptable' way

13 September 2020, 21:34 | Updated: 14 September 2020, 06:03

Robert Buckland has said he will resign if the government breaks the law in a way he considers unacceptable
Robert Buckland has said he will resign if the government breaks the law in a way he considers unacceptable. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has said he will resign if the government breaks international law in an "unacceptable" way with its proposed Brexit legislation.

The minister insisted he does not believe the UK will "get to that stage" amid growing criticism of Boris Johnson's Brexit plans.

He said the controversial legislation that could break international law was a "break-the-glass-in-emergency provision if we need it".

His defence came as Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said the UK was damaging its international reputation. He hit out at Mr Johnson's "spin" by denying Europe could impose a "blockade" between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The prime minister is under increasing pressure to back down on plans to override elements of his own Withdrawal Agreement, with former leaders calling on Tory rebels to vote his Bill down.

As Justice Secretary, Mr Buckland has faced calls to explain how the plans are consistent with obligations under international law and he was pressed on Sunday over whether he would resign.

"If I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable then, of course, I will go," he said.

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"I don't believe we're going to get to that stage. I know in my mind what I have to do. But the government collectively here also has a responsibility, we've got to resolve any conflict that's what we will do."

His Labour shadow, David Lammy, accused Mr Buckland of "putting career before country", adding: "Each time the government breaks the law it's a travesty.

The Justice Secretary insisted the government is "committed to the rule of law" but he said the controversial UK Internal Market Bill, which will be debated in Parliament on Monday, is needed in order to "prepare for the worst".

Mr Johnson has increased his rhetoric as senior Tories prepare to rebel against his legislation, warning that Brussels could "carve up our country" without his new Bill.

But Mr Coveney dismissed the prime minister's suggestion that the EU could prevent food products being transported from Britain to Northern Ireland and said the UK's reputation was being "damaged".

"There is no blockade proposed," Mr Coveney told The Andrew Marr Show. "That is the kind of inflammatory language coming from Number 10 which is spin and not the truth."

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Mr Coveney said there would be just "limited checks" on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland because there is an agreement to prevent the need of a physical border on the island of Ireland.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier also said the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement "is not a threat to the integrity of the UK" and denied the EU was refusing to list the UK as a third country for food imports.

He said the "delicate compromise" was agreed with Mr Johnson in October to "protect peace and stability" on the island of Ireland and that the EU could "not have been clearer about the consequences".

But UK chief negotiator Lord Frost countered to state it would "be automatically illegal" for Northern Ireland to import food products from Britain if listing status was not approved, as they exchanged comments on Twitter ahead of informal talks being scheduled to resume in Brussels this week.

Former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair united to urge MPs to reject the "shaming" legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK's integrity.

"It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal - crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation," they wrote in the Sunday Times.

Despite Mr Johnson's attempts to drum up support, Tory rebels suggested their numbers were growing and opinions were only hardened by Mr Johnson's increased rhetoric.

Commons justice committee chairman Sir Bob Neill has tabled an amendment which he said would impose a "parliamentary lock" on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Labour minister Rachel Reeves said the party would "need to look at the detail" of Sir Bob's amendment and said Labour MPs will table amendments of their own.

She said Labour will vote against the government's Bill if it still contains clauses overriding the Withdrawal Agreement.