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The UK's Top Legal Civil Servant Has Quit Over A Brexit Deal Change That Breaks International Law

Jonathan Jones has headed the government's legal service since 2014 (Image: Paul Heartfield/CSW)

4 min read

The head of the government’s legal service has reportedly quit over changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, becoming the sixth senior Whitehall official to resign this year.

According to the Financial Times, Jonathan Jones is leaving his position as he is said to be “very unhappy” about plans to rewrite parts of the 2019 withdrawal agreement. 

It comes after reports on Monday that the government is putting forward a new Internal Market Bill later this week which would "eliminate the legal force of parts of the Withdrawal Agreement” and allow UK ministers to take charge of customs issues on the Irish border – despite potentially being in breach of international law.

A spokesperson for Number 10 said on Tuesday: “I can confirm he’s stepping down and we want to thank him for his years of hard service and wish him well for his future”

Reponding to the news, Labour said Mr Jones' departure "indicates that senior government lawyers think that the government are about to break the law".

But Downing Street has insisted that the new powers will be “limited” and that the bill will only make “minor clarifications in extremely specific areas” of the withdrawal agreement.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told the Commons on Tuesday ministers would work with the EU "in the spirit of good ensure we do implement the arrangements which uphold the fundamental principles that lie behind the [Northern Ireland] protocol".

His comments came after former prime minister Theresa May, who fought multiple battles in a bid to get her own Brexit deal through parliament, pointed out the UK government had signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the protocol incorporated and had voted the measures into law.

"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?" she added.

Later in the proceedings, Mr Lewis also confirmed that the government's plans were contrary to their obligations under international law.

"Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way," he said, adding that there are "clear precedents" of countries reconsidering their "international obligations as circumstances change".

Officials told reporters on Monday that the new bill was necessary as the UK faces “the prospect of legal confusion at the end of the year and potentially extremely damaging defaults, including tariffs on goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland.”

The row comes as the UK and EU enter their eighth round of negotiations on Tuesday, with just weeks left for both sides to reach an agreement before the end of the transitional period. 

Ahead of the talks, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, tweeted: “I trust the British government to implement the withdrawal agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership. 

“The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island & integrity of the single market.”

Jonathan Jones was appointed as Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary of the Government Legal Department in 2014 and has worked in the civil service since 1993.

The trained barrister previously worked as a legal advisor and solicitor at the Home Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Department for Education

He is the sixth senior civil service official to quit in the last year, following in the footsteps of cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, Simon McDonald from the Foreign Office, Philip Rutnam from the Home Office, Richard Heaton from the Ministry of Justice and Jonathan Slater from the Department for Education.

Shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said:  “Jonathan Jones is an impressive lawyer and a loyal civil servant. If he can’t stay in the public service, there must be something very rotten about this government. This resignation indicates that senior government lawyers think that the government are about to break the law. 

“The government is trashing the best of the UK, we are a law abiding country and the government have some serious questions to answer.”

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