Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today repeatedly dodged questions over whether he will resign if the Government goes ahead with its plans to break international law over Brexit.
Mr Buckland, who as Lord Chancellor has taken an oath to protect the rule of law, said Boris Johnson’s proposals to tear up parts of the EU divorce deal were just an ‘insurance policy’.
He said ‘this isn’t something that we actually want to have to use’ but that as a ‘responsible government’ action must be taken just in case Brussels and Britain cannot agree on crunch issues contained within the Withdrawal Agreement.
Ministers have admitted Mr Johnson’s plans will breach international law if they are implemented but when asked directly if he would resign over the issue, Mr Buckland said: ‘It is not a question about me or my position.’
Mr Buckland later said he would quit if the rule of law is ‘broken in a way that I find unacceptable’ – a caveated response which instantly caused controversy in legal circles.
The EU has given Mr Johnson until the end of the month to withdraw his plans or face legal action, with trade talks also expected to collapse if the PM does not perform a U-turn.
But the Government has insisted it has no intention of backing town, putting Britain and the bloc on a collision course.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today refused to say whether he will resign if the Government goes ahead with plans to break international law over Brexit
The latest row with the EU was sparked by the publication of the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill.
The legislation, which the Government is hoping to crash through the House of Commons in the next two weeks, will enable the UK to unilaterally make decisions on key issues, like customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, contained within the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brussels is adamant that the decisions must be made by a joint committee made up of people from both sides.
Asked why any country should trust the UK if it is prepared to row back on an accord it agreed less than a year ago, Mr Buckland said the hope is that the offending measures will never have to be used.
He told Sky News: ‘What we are doing is making sure that if the joint committee negotiations about the [Northern Ireland] protocol fail, and there is still a way to go when it comes to that, we have an insurance policy here in the UK to make sure that any conflicts, any disagreements are not against the interests of the internal market of the United Kingdom, the sovereignty of our own country.
‘This isn’t something that we do lightly, this isn’t something that we actually want to have to use.
‘This is something that a responsible government does in order to prepare for the worst.
‘But can I reiterate our steely determination to get a deal, not just the free trade deal but the agreement on the protocol to make sure that it works in the interests of the Republic of Ireland, in the interests of the United Kingdom and most importantly in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.’
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted last week the UK’s plans to override the Withdrawal Agreement will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.
Told that as Lord Chancellor he had taken an oath to protect the rule of law, Mr Buckland was asked if he is going to resign if the Government proceeds with the proposals.
He replied: ‘It is not a question about me or my position. The whole government is actually committed to the rule of law.
‘I as Lord Chancellor of course speak more chiefly for the government on those general issues.
‘I can assure you that what we are doing is in accordance with I think actually the most honourable traditions of the British state which is to alert everyone to the possibility of a problem, to actually legislation and prepare ourselves domestically for that.
‘But to make the point we are not at that stage yet and we don’t have to be. If all parties come together and work with a will to get these provisions agreed then we won’t need these clauses at all. That is the government’s sincere wish. We are 100 per cent committed to these negotiations.’
Mr Buckland was then repeatedly asked if he will resign if the Government breaks international law during an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
He said: ‘If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then of course I will go.
‘I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage. I know in my mind what I have to do.’
He said the legislation was a ‘break the glass in emergency provision if we need it’.
Mr Buckland also argued that international law is different to domestic law after it was suggested the Government’s position amounted to a criminal saying they have bought a balaclava and a crowbar but they hope not to have to burgle a house.
The Justice Secretary said: ‘I think analogies with criminal law are wholly misplaced. What we are talking about here is intricate international law arrangements.’
Mr Buckland denied the suggestion he is being ‘played by Mr Johnson. He said: ‘I’ve been in politics a long time and I’m old enough and ugly enough to know when I’m being played and I can tell you the Prime Minister knows my strong views about the need to work positively with our European neighbours.’
Mr Johnson is facing mounting criticism from across the political spectrum over his plans to depart from parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The PM is facing a rebellion from up to 30 Tory MPs who are furious at the Government’s proposals to break international law.
Meanwhile, former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair have united to urge MPs to reject the legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.
Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Rachel Reeves, today said the party’s MPs will vote against the UK Internal Market Bill if clauses overriding the Withdrawal Agreement are not removed.
‘Tomorrow, the Bill as it stands, the Labour Party, and it looks like a large number of Conservative MPs, will not be able to support it because I cannot go through and Keir Starmer cannot go through the division lobbies knowing that we are deliberately and consciously breaking international law,’ she told the BBC.
Sir Keir has said that if the clauses are removed then Labour would be willing to support the Bill which aims to prepare the UK for life outside the EU.