Brexit: Justice secretary suggests he will quit if government breaks international law in ‘unacceptable’ way

‘If I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable then of course I will go. We are not at that stage’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 13 September 2020 17:15
Comments
Robert Buckland: If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then of course I will go

Robert Buckland has hinted he will quit as justice secretary if the government passes Brexit legislation that flouts international law, but added: “We are not at that stage.”

On the contentious plans put forward by Boris Johnson, the cabinet minister said the Internal Markets Bill, to be introduced in the Commons this week, was a “break the glass in emergency” provision if trade talks with the European Union collapse.

Earlier this week, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, admitted the legislation, which seeks to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement, would break international law in a “limited and specific” way – provoking outrage among EU officials.

Questioned five times on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show whether he would resign if the UK fails to achieve a trading agreement with the EU and invokes the legislation, Mr Buckland first said: “What I will be working on is making sure we resolve that conflict as soon as possible.

Asked again, he added: “If I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable then of course I will go. We are not at that stage.”

Pressed a third time, he replied: “What I will be seeking to do and indeed the government will be seeking to do is to resolve that conflict as soon as possible. I have to look at the complexity of all of these decisions.”

Mr Buckland went on: “I don’t believe we’re going to get to that point. That is why I shall be working very hard [to ensure] we don’t.”

In a separate interview on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the cabinet minister dodged questions over his position as justice secretary and lord chancellor, and claimed the proposed Brexit legislation was in accordance with the “most honourable traditions of the British state”.

He said: “It’s not a question about me or my position, the whole government is actually committed to the rule of law. I can assure that what we’re doing is in accordance with what I think actually the most honourable traditions of the British state which is to alert everyone to a possibility of a problem, to actually legislate to prepare ourselves domestically for that.

“But, to make the point, we’re 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’s the government’s sincere wish, we’re 100 per cent committed to these negotiations, we’re going to press on with them until the end.”

Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy said in response to Mr Buckland’s remarks: “Each time the government breaks the law it’s a travesty. By ignoring this, the lord chancellor is putting career before country.”

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, also said Labour would vote against the legislation if it still contains clauses overriding the EU withdrawal agreement when introduced to the Commons this week.

“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 this evening knowing that we are deliberately and consciously breaking international law,” she said.

“It is the wrong thing to do for our moral standing in the world, but it is also absolutely counterproductive in achieving what we want to achieve, and that is a free trade agreement with the European Union – but indeed, free trade agreements around the world.

Their remarks came as former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair united to urge MPs to reject the legislation, claiming it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.

“We both opposed Brexit. We both accept it is now happening. But this way of negotiating, with reason cast aside in pursuit of ideology and cavalier bombast posing as serious diplomacy, is irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice,” they wrote in The Sunday Times.

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