Boris Johnson warned plans to break international law over Brexit could have ‘catastrophic consequences’ for UK’s reputation

Exclusive: Former diplomatic and security officials raise alarm over ‘short-sighted tactics which will do much harm in wider world’

Kim Sengupta,Ashley Cowburn
Sunday 13 September 2020 02:45 BST
Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

The government’s decision to break international law over Brexit could have “catastrophic” consequences for Britain, gravely damaging the country’s reputation and undermining relations with allies while empowering adversaries, senior former diplomatic and security officials have warned.

There is also deep concern about the seeming breakdown of relations between Downing Street and the civil service with the resignation of Jonathan Jones, the head of the government’s legal department, in protest at the government’s actions seen as the latest example of this development.

Lord Butler, who was head of the civil service for 10 years, said he had never encountered anything as “difficult” as the current turmoil during his time as cabinet secretary and warned that the government had undermined the UK on the international stage.

Boris Johnson has put forward only “weak” arguments to support the changes he wants to make to the EU withdrawal agreement, Lord Butler added.

Former officials have also expressed disquiet at constant attacks on the judiciary, media and others who challenge the government, in what is seen as emulating the practices of the Trump administration in the US.

The consternation about what is happening from those who have served the country comes as the prime minister faces a growing rebellion from Conservative MPs and peers to the proposed legislation which overrides key parts of the EU withdrawal agreement, with a former minister, Bob Neill, trying to organise a parliamentary veto.

There is also rising criticism of the British government’s conduct among European politicians and officials. The EU has already warned that it may take legal action if the British government went ahead with its breach of the treaty.  

The assessment of the damage the government is doing to the UK is damning. It has been pointed out that this country has repeatedly criticised states like Russia and China for breaking the “rules-based international order” and yet now holds that it is perfectly justified to breach international law.

Asked by The Independent whether civil servants had been put in a difficult position by the government, Lord Butler said: “Yes, well I think it might, [Jonathan] Jones felt so strongly about it that he felt he had to resign his position. That’s as it were a moral decision on his part, but that’s a different thing from a breach of the civil service code.”

When pressed if he had dealt with anything comparable during his decade-long tenure as cabinet secretary, he replied: “No, I didn’t experience something as difficult as this. There were things that ministers decided to do, or governments decided to do which I didn’t agree with, but I never had anything which I thought was so morally repugnant that I had to resign. Nor was I asked to do something that was illegal. So no, I think this is a particularly difficult issue.”

The former civil service chief added: “They have put forward a justification for it. It’s only a contingent thing: if they can’t get an agreement and the EU act in such a way that the government considers that its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement are breached – that’s their defence. A lot of people think it isn’t a good defence and I think that’s why the government will have a lot of difficulty putting this bill through parliament.

“I think it is very difficult to justify breaking a recently agreed international agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol – I think their argument is weak. You can say if they thought this was a contingency, they should have thought of it before they agreed the protocol.”

General Sir Richard Barrons, the former chief of Joint Forces Command who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland, told The Independent that “what the government is proposing is short-sighted tactics which will do much harm strategically in the wider world. In fact what is being done is particularly stupid.

“It will undermine us with our enemies by giving them the opportunity to accuse us of hypocrisy when we call them out for breaking the rules-based international order. It will also undermine us with our allies who will doubt whether they can rely on us to keep to an agreement, keep to our word.”

General Barrons continued: “The UK can be accused of being like Russia, which breaks international rule but then pretends it hasn’t, or China, which is trying to change the actual rules. China may be big enough to do this, but I am afraid the UK is not.

“We are a middle ranking power and part of the influence we have is dependent on cooperation with allies and is spread through international laws which we have signed up to and we have actively promoted since the Second World War.”

He also spoke about growing concern about the fractious relationship between Downing Street and the civil service. “The resignation of the treasury solicitor is yet another example of am emblematic problem between this government and the civil service, this is obviously a serious ongoing situation”, Sir Richard said.

Former diplomat John Ashton, whose posts have included being special representative for climate change, said: “I hope that the bomb that has been placed in the withdrawal bill won’t actually go off, either because we reach a deal with the EU including on the Northern Ireland Protocol, or because the offending clauses get removed from the bill as it goes through parliament.

“But if the government does what it threatens to do, that would be catastrophic for our reputation in the world, and for our ability to secure our national interests. Our friends would weep; our enemies would laugh.

“In that event we would be telling everyone that no promise we make from now on will be worth the paper it is written on. With the rules-based system already under attack from elsewhere, including the current US administration, we would be putting ourselves on the side of the attackers, not those defending it, with whom our real interest lies.”

Mr Ashton, who had also run an environmental think tank, pointed out that the UK was co-hosting a major international conference on climate change, COP26, next year.

“This will be the most significant international gathering since the pandemic (which led to its postponement). It will be crucial not only in moving the regime of obligations and promises forward to deal with the existential threat of climate change, but more widely in rebuilding confidence, post-pandemic, that we have it in us to respond successfully through cooperation to all the great global challenges we now face.

“At COP26, we will be saying to the world: we must all redouble the promises we have made to each other on climate change, and we must reaffirm our trust in each other that we will keep our promises. If we can’t do that the COP will be a failure. 

“What message will it send to everyone else if the host country has itself blithely, unilaterally and for reasons of short-term expediency walked away from its binding international obligations in another area?”

Sir William Patey, who served as British ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, told The Independent: “The withdrawal agreement contains the mechanism to address disputes, as all major agreements do. The government could make use of these if it can show that the EU was acting in bad faith. One can also, of course, pull out of an agreement at the end of the day.

“But what this government is doing is keeping the agreement and then just taking out the bits which they don’t like. This is breaking international law: their own lawyers are saying it’s breaking international law.

“This will have severe consequences. Never mind Britain’s reputation, this will be very, very bad practically, weakening Britain’s position in agreements and alliances, including future ones on trade and security, while giving adversaries the excuse to accuse us of hypocrisy.”

Sir William continued: “We are also seeing some very worrying developments, both in America and over here. There seem to pretty regular attacks by some in government on people we need to hold those in power to account; institutions which are important for a healthy democracy like the media, neutral public servants, the judiciary.”

Sir Simon Fraser, the former head of the Foreign Office, accused the government of trying to jettison some of the most significant parts of the withdrawal agreement. He said: “It is a very significant disapplication of important parts of that agreement.

Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

“The fact they are saying they are doing this because they signed the agreement in a hurry and didn’t realise the implications is hardly a convincing argument.” 

In an incendiary article on Saturday, the prime minister doubled down on his intention to introduce the legislation next week in the Commons and in an attempt to dissuade potential rebels from scuppering his plans, claimed the EU could “carve up our country” unless MPs pass the Bill.

“I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off, or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

And in a broadcast round, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister who held emergency talks with EU officials earlier this week over the government’s plans, echoed Mr Johnson’s comments and claimed ministers’ actions were “entirely consistent with the rule of law”.

He added: “We’re doing our part – generously – to help protect the EU’s own single market, but we’re clear that what we can’t have even as we’re doing all that is the EU disrupting and putting at threat the integrity of the United Kingdom.

"These steps are a safety net, they’re a long-stop in the event, which I don’t believe will come about but we do need to be ready for, that the EU follow through on what some have said they might do, which is in effect to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom."

Some Tories, however, remained unconvinced and Tobias Ellwood, the senior Conservative MP who chairs the Commons defence committee, said on Saturday that “unamended I cannot support this bill”.

“Already this bill is damaging brand UK, diminishing our role-model status as defender of global standards. As we go to the wire, let’s see more British statecraft – less Nixonian Madman Theory,” he tweeted.

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