What do you do when a cabinet minister admits that the government plans to “break international law”?
That is the extraordinary question today after Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, confirmed in the House of Commons chamber that a new bill to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement “does break international law in a specific and limited way”.
The government’s most senior lawyer, Jonathan Jones, has also today tendered his resignation, amid reports that an external lawyer advised the government that it would be in breach of international obligations if it legislated in contradiction to the Withdrawal Agreement, but decided to press ahead with the legislation anyway.
Brandon Lewis has done journalists’ jobs for us. Since the first hint of this incendiary story in the Financial Times on 7 September, we have had to wait to see the contents of the Internal Market Bill when it is published on 9 September, balancing concerns that this bill would renege on our international commitments and risk a hard border on the island of Ireland against the government’s insistence that these were “minor clarifications” and that it was committed to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol in full.
Thanks to Lewis, however, we don’t have to do the delicate dance of balancing the government’s line against its dissenters. Whether this new bill tramples over huge sections of the Withdrawal Agreement or offers “minor clarifications” to areas that have not been finalised in the joint committee on the Northern Irish protocol, it breaks international law. Of course it does: the government is seeking to overwrite an international agreement that was made as an insurance policy in the event of no further agreement. It has decided unilaterally to “clarify” matters that are the subject of a bilateral agreement and subject to further clarification only through a specifically-designed bilateral joint committee. But instead of days and weeks arguing about whether this is technically lawful,a cabinet minister has provided us with the gift of a frank answer, and one that will go down in history, to be repeated back at this government and at the UK by other countries for decades to come.
The publication of the bill tomorrow will raise questions of its own, but for now, Lewis’s statement raises questions that are barely conceivable of a functioning Western democracy.
How, fundamentally, can the UK government exert any authority in asking other countries to adhere to international law if it does not do so itself?
How will any country sign a trade deal or any other treaty with the UK if the government has shown itself willing to renege on commitments enshrined in international law?
How can ministers proceed to implement a bill which contradicts the ministerial code’s insistence on the “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law”?
How can it compel civil servants to break the Civil Service Code, which states that civil servants must “comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice”?
How many Conservative MPs will refuse to vote for a bill that by their government’s own admission breaks international law? How many cabinet ministers will see this as a step too far?
How will the EU respond?
And, perhaps most importantly: what does this mean for ordinary people in Northern Ireland?