Senior Tory calls for Justice Secretary to resign over Brexit bill changes

10 September 2020, 10:45 | Updated: 11 September 2020, 15:47

By Asher McShane

A senior Conservative MP has called for the Justice Secretary to step down over plans to overwrite parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Tory MP Sir Roger Gale today called on Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to resign over the Internal Market Bill.

Sir Roger told LBC News: "I would expect the Justice Secretary under these terms to fall on his sword.

"One of the government’s senior legal advisers (Jonathan Jones) has already done and resigned from his post because the terms of the Bill are unacceptable internationally.

"We are going to embark shortly upon a series of trade negotiations with all sorts of countries around the world. We have to do that post-Brexit.

Read more: Senior EU official to meet Michael Gove for emergency Brexit talks

A senior Tory has called for Robert Buckland to resign
A senior Tory has called for Robert Buckland to resign. Picture: PA

"How are we going to be regarded as a nation if it is believed that whatever we sign isn’t worth the paper it’s written on? That is the position that this Prime Minister is putting us in and I will have no part in it.”

Yesterday Labour MP David Lammy sent a letter to Robert Buckland reminding him of his “sworn duty to respect the rule of law.”

“If you fail to prevent the government from breaking the rule of law, will you stand by your oath to respect the rule of law by breaking cabinet responsibility for this matter?” he wrote.

Tory former Prime Minister Theresa May echoed his concerns over trust in the Commons yesterday.

She said: "The UK Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol, this Parliament voted that Withdrawal Agreement into UK legislation.

"The Government is now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?"

Emergency talks are taking place today after the EU reacted strongly to Boris Johnson's move to override key parts of the Withdrawal Agreement break with Brussels.

An "extraordinary meeting" of the Joint Committee between the UK and EU is being held in London after the Prime Minister unveiled proposed legislation to alter key elements of the Brexit deal with Brussels regarding Northern Ireland.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove will meet senior EU official Maros Sefcovic to discuss the situation, as talks between the UK's chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost and his Brussels counterpart Michel Barnier continue.

The meeting between Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic comes as Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi insisted there was "absolutely no chance" of Congress passing an American trade deal with the UK if the Northern Ireland peace process was "imperilled".

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was "very concerned" following the tabling in Parliament of the UK Internal Market Bill, which ministers have admitted will breach international law.

She said such actions would "undermine trust" and called on the Prime Minister to honour his past commitments.

The European Commission's chief spokesperson Eric Mamer Tweeted late on Wednesday: "Following today's announcement by the UK, Maros Sefcovic will travel to London tomorrow to meet Michael Gove for an extraordinary meeting of the Joint Committee.

"The EU seeks clarifications from the UK on the full and timely implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement."

Analysis by Theo Usherwood, LBC's political editor

Less than a year ago, the Withdrawal Agreement – an international treaty signed between the UK and the European Union – represented a “great deal” for our country, according to Boris Johnson.

But for the British Government there appears to have been a change of heart. It is now no longer such a great new deal, as a bad old deal in need of some serious revision.

Step forward the Internal Market Bill, a new UK law designed to underpin trade between Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England when the transition period ends on December 31st.

The problem with the legislation from the EU’s point of view, is that it simply undermines the most crucial aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement, which effectively brought Northern Ireland into the EU’s customs union in order to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

It was of course a key requirement of the EU that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remained open in order to ensure the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought peace, remained intact and that trade across the border could continue uninhibited

What the Internal Market Bill does is that it allows the Government to effectively remove checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain and vice-versa. It also allows the British Government to remove EU state aid rules in Northern Ireland.

The problem with this legislation is just as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis stated in the House of Commons on Tuesday: it breaks international law.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May is amongst the senior Conservative MPs who do not like it. Neither does Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the justice select committee, Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, or Sir Roger Gale, who today of course called for the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland to resign over the move, just as the Government’s most senior lawyer Jonathan Jones, a civil servant, had done earlier in the week.

All four make the argument that at a time when we need the trust of countries around the world as we make trade deals, to be seen to go back on our word would be entirely counter-productive. Indeed on the other side of the Atlantic, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said Congress could block a US-UK trade deal if it undermines the Good Friday Agreement.

Nevertheless, the Government is pressing ahead.

The Bill receives its second reading in the Commons next week, with the Government hoping it can become law by the beginning of October, ahead of the PM’s October 15th deadline for trade talks to conclude.

But there is a significant chance the legislation could be defeated in the Commons.

If that doesn’t happen, it will face further opposition in the Lords, and then there is the suggestion we could find ourselves back in the Supreme Court, just like we did when the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament unlawfully this time last year.

In short, it all feels a bit like we have been here before.