Boris Johnson. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/BEN STANSALL
Boris Johnson. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/BEN STANSALL

London — Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from within his own ruling Conservative Party after the UK government said it plans to break international law over Brexit.

As trade talks with the EU continue, the prime minister will take questions in Parliament and is likely to be put under pressure by senior Tories who fear the move will undermine trust in the UK around the world.

The controversy was sparked by Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis who said on Tuesday that the government’s plan to rewrite parts of the Brexit divorce deal it signed with the EU would be a breach of international law in a “limited and specific way”.

That admission caused astonishment and anger among the influential rank-and-file Tories who believe the abandonment of a legally-binding treaty would hurt future attempts to secure international agreements.

“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?” Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked in Parliament.

The UK needs to secure a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020 or its economy will be saddled with additional costs and disruption when tariffs, quotas and customs checks are reimposed.

Roger Gale, another Conservative member of Parliament, said on Twitter that Britain’s actions will be “regarded worldwide as an act of bad faith” and that “honour is not for sale or barter.” Another senior Tory MP expressed his shock, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Lewis’s statement as a massive problem, adding it wasn’t the right way to complete Brexit.

Negotiating ploy?

Yet another, also critical of Johnson’s handling of the situation, suggested it could be a negotiating tactic by Johnson’s office in 10 Downing Street. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he described the move as part of the necessary crisis before a deal is reached.

“Threatening international treaties is a very risky move,” said David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy. “It is made worse by a government threatening to overturn a treaty that it agreed only eight months previously and fought a general election on the basis of being the right deal for the UK.”

The government’s proposal to change sections of the Brexit divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland has also triggered deep concern among officials. The UK’s most senior government lawyer, Jonathan Jones, resigned on Tuesday, while Rowena Collins Rice, director general at the attorney-general’s office, also left her post.

The departure of Jones shows “something pretty rotten is happening” in the government, Charles Falconer, Labour’s shadow attorney general, told Times Radio.

Damage control

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to comment on the reasons for Jones’s departure. Collins Rice, whose departure had been in the works for several months, is taking up another public appointment, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The controversy facing Johnson centers on the Brexit divorce deal’s requirement that Northern Ireland continues to be bound by the EU’s customs rules after Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on December 31.

That effectively established a border in the Irish Sea, with businesses in Northern Ireland facing the prospect of having to file customs paperwork if they want to move goods to the rest of the UK.

In a bill due to be published on Wednesday, the government plans to give ministers the powers to waive the requirement for such paperwork, should the issue not be settled by joint talks with the EU this year. It also plans to give ministers the power to determine unilaterally which goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be liable to pay tariffs in the event the UK and EU fail to reach a trade accord.

Irish fury

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, branded the U.K.’s plan as “hugely problematic and illegal,” telling MPs in Dublin that he was gravely concerned the UK is trying to undermine the deal it signed.

Johnson’s office said the prime minister made promises prior to signing the divorce deal that he wanted to uphold, including that there would be unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The government also says that it signed the Withdrawal Agreement expecting to then reach a trade accord with the EU— and is only providing a safety net in case those negotiations fail.

“There are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change,” Lewis said.

The government could still be leaving itself open to a challenge in the courts, risking a second major legal defeat for the prime minister. In 2019, Britain’s highest court found Johnson’s decision to suspend, or prorogue, Parliament to avoid debate about Brexit was unlawful.

“That sound you hear?” tweeted George Freeman, a Conservative who represents Mid-Norfolk. “It’s the sound of the supreme court preparing to remind ministers that intentionally breaking the law — even in a very specific and limited way — is, well, unlawful.”

Bloomberg

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.