Minister admits Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans will break international law

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis today admitted Boris Johnson’s plans to tear up part of the Brexit divorce deal will breach international law. 

Mr Lewis sparked an instant backlash as he said the Prime Minister’s proposals to override the Withdrawal Agreement will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.

Labour described the admission as ‘absolutely astonishing’ while senior Tory MP Sir Bob Neill said ‘adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable’.

Theresa May had earlier warned Mr Johnson the UK will no longer be trusted by other countries to honour international agreements if he goes ahead with plans to row back on the deal agreed last year. 

It came after Sir Jonathan Jones quit as Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Profession, reportedly over Mr Johnson’s plans to depart from parts of the accord struck with Brussels which relate to the Northern Ireland border protocol.

Meanwhile, US politicians warned there will be no trade deal done between Washington and London if the Government’s actions on Brexit undermine the Good Friday Agreement. 

Brexit trade talks between the UK and EU are on the brink of collapse after Mr Johnson warned the ‘contradictory’ terms of Britain’s split from Brussels must be overhauled.

The EU’s top negotiator Michel Barnier is arriving in London today for a make-or-break round of trade negotiations amid mounting gloom about the prospects of a breakthrough.

The standoff turned nasty yesterday as Brussels voiced fury at UK threats to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out last year. 

Legislation would unilaterally ‘clarify’ key parts of the settlement, including customs rules for Northern Ireland, that the EU insists should be resolved by a joint committee.  

Jonathan Jones

Sir Jonathan Jones today resigned as the boss of the Government’s legal department, reportedly over Boris Johnson’s plans to override the Withdrawal Agreement

Why is this happening now and what does the EU say about it?

What is the row about?

Ministers are acting unilaterally to ‘clarify’ how parts of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will operate in Northern Ireland. This involves legislating to tie up ‘loose ends’ on issues like state aid, tariffs and the paperwork faced by businesses trading with the rest of the UK.

Is the PM tearing up the deal he negotiated last year?

Downing Street yesterday said the PM would implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol regardless of whether or not a trade deal is struck. It was designed to prevent the need for a hard border in Ireland. But some details were left unresolved. They have been the subject of negotiations by a joint EU-UK committee. But, with the UK’s departure now approaching fast, ministers decided to act unilaterally on ‘minor’ issues to prevent ‘legal confusion’. These include state aid, tariffs and the paperwork businesses should face.

What does the EU say?

Senior EU figures were unhappy about the UK’s decision to act unilaterally. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said sticking to the letter of the deal was a ‘precondition’ for any trade agreement. Dutch PM Mark Rutte said it was ‘not very reassuring’ and warned a deal looked ‘very difficult’. But there was no immediate move to halt trade talks.

Why is this happening now?

Downing Street says it is the last chance to clarify the situation in law before the end of the year. Some Tories believe the timing of the move is part of a broader tactic designed to put pressure on the EU to cut a deal now or risk the UK acting independently in even more areas.

What is the UK proposing on state aid?

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the EU customs union and single market when the rest of the UK leaves. This means that EU state aid rules will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. Ministers feared that the Commission could try to extend its jurisdiction to British firms with links to Northern Ireland. Under the new provisions, Business Secretary Alok Sharma will decide whether or not a subsidy has to be reported to the EU.

Will firms in N. Ireland face extra paperwork?

They had been braced to have to make export declarations on goods shipped to the rest of the UK. Boris Johnson last year told firms there they should put any forms ‘in the bin’. Ministers have now ruled unilaterally that export declarations will not have to be made.

Will goods shipped there face EU tariffs?

One of the EU’s biggest concerns is that Northern Ireland could become a ‘back door’ for British goods entering the single market. The Withdrawal Agreement sets out plans to create a list of goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland which are ‘at risk’ of entering the single market via Ireland. These would then face EU tariffs. Under the changes, UK ministers will now decide which exports should be placed on the ‘at risk’ list.

Mr Lewis admitted in the House of Commons this afternoon that the UK’s proposals will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’. 

Responding to a question from Tory MP Sir Bob Neill, Mr Lewis said: ‘I would say to [Sir Bob] that yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.

‘We are taking the power to dis-apply the EU concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in a certain, very tightly defined circumstances.’

He added that ‘there are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change’.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said the admission was ‘absolutely astonishing’ and it ‘this seriously undermines our authority on the international stage’.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned the Government not to ‘reopen old wounds’ by doing something ‘wrong’ as he urged ministers to focus on striking a trade deal and then concentrate on ‘defeating this virus’. 

Sir Bob later said on Twitter: ‘Any breach, or potential breach, of the international legal obligations we have entered into is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s in a ‘specific’ or ‘limited way’. Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable.’ 

Fellow Tory MP Sir Roger Gale echoed a similar sentiment as he said ‘seeking to re-negotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol will be regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith’.

Sir Roger said the UK must not ‘undermine our international credibility’ and status as an ‘honourable country’. 

Conservative MP and former minister George Freeman said ‘that sound you hear’ is the ‘Supreme Court preparing to remind ministers that intentionally breaking the law – even in a very specific and limited way – is, well, unlawful’. 

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said breaking international law ‘will do untold damage to our reputation abroad’.

Mrs May had earlier told the Commons that the Government’s approach risked damaging the UK’s global reputation. 

She said: ‘The United Kingdom Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that Withdrawal Agreement into UK legislation. The Government is now changing the operation of that agreement.

‘Given that, 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?’  

Guy Verhofstadt, the MEP and former chairman of the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinating group, said Mr Lewis’s comments were ‘astonishing’ and quoted Margaret Thatcher: ‘Britain does not renounce Treaties. Indeed, to do so would damage our own integrity as well as international relations.’ 

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, yesterday warned the UK against any move which would breach its international obligations. 

‘I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership,’ she tweeted.

Whitehall was rocked this morning by the surprise resignation of Sir Jonathan from his role as the head of the Government’s legal department. 

Downing Street confirmed his resignation but provided no reasons for his decision to step down. 

However, reports suggest Sir Jonathan chose to walk away because of the PM’s decision to try to override parts of the original Brexit divorce accord. 

Why do the UK’s new Brexit proposals break international law?

Brandon Lewis admitted this afternoon that the UK Government’s plans to override parts of the Brexit divorce deal will break international law.

This is because the UK and the EU formally ratified the Withdrawal Agreement in January of this year which means both sides are legally bound by what is contained within it.

The main sticking point is that within the agreement the two sides agreed that a joint committee would make decisions on a number of key issues.

But with the chances of a trade deal appearing slim and the end of the transition period in December creeping ever closer the UK wants to act unilaterally – disregarding the joint committee requirement – in order to ‘clarify’ some parts of the divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland.

Mr Lewis today admitted this would constitute a breach of international law but he insisted ‘there are some precedents’ of countries taking such action in ‘very specific technical circumstances’.

Meanwhile, UK government officials have argued that without changes the Withdrawal Agreement would clash with the Good Friday Agreement.

They said that ‘minor clarifications in extremely specific areas’ were needed to ensure that as the Northern Ireland border protocol is implemented ministers are able to ‘always uphold and protect the Good Friday peace agreement’.

The EU has said that implementing the Withdrawal Agreement in full is a prerequisite for doing a trade deal which means if the UK sticks to its position the talks could collapse. 

The Financial Times reported that the top lawyer was ‘very unhappy’ about the stance taken by Mr Johnson. He becomes the sixth senior civil servant to quit Whitehall this year amid an ongoing war between the civil service and Number 10.

Labour said the resignation of Sir Jonathan suggested ‘there must be something very rotten about this Government’. 

Sir Jonathan’s decision to quit came after ministers tried to downplay the significance of Mr Johnson’s plans, insisting it amounted to tying up ‘loose ends’.  

The decision to try to row back on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement has spooked some politicians in the US. 

Brendan Boyle, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives, said any move by the UK which could undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland would scupper any hopes of a trans-Atlantic trade deal. 

He said: ‘If the UK in leaving the European Union, which is fully their right to do, if the UK does it in such a way that it violates the Good Friday Agreement there will be no US UK free trade agreement. Period. 

‘So the UK needs to understand there will be consequences that stretch well beyond trust dealings with the EU on this matter. 

The PM’s chief negotiator Lord Frost increased the temperature again today, demanding ‘more realism’ from the EU that the UK was now a sovereign country. 

In a message kicking off the latest round of discussions, the peer said the two sides ‘can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground’ and progress on the key stumbling points – fishing rights and the UK obeying EU rules – was essential this week if a deal was to be done in time for the end of the transition period in January. 

Medical leaders have also cautioned that a combination of a chaotic change in trade arrangements and resurgent coronavirus this winter could ‘overwhelm’ the health service. 

Mr Johnson sent an ultimatum to the EU that he will ‘not back down’ yesterday, in another effort to convince the bloc he is not bluffing about reverting to basic trading arrangements at the end of the transition period.

Leaked diplomatic cables showed growing unease among European officials over the UK’s hardline stance, with suspicions that Mr Johnson is holding off on a compromise until the last minute to secure the best possible terms.

There is disquiet among some senior Conservatives over ‘dangerous’ plans to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement. 

The UK government is pushing through legislation that could effectively override parts of the divorce deal.

What happens next in the Brexit process? 

The UK formally left the EU on January 31 this year. 

However, the two sides moved seamlessly into a status quo transition period lasting until December 31. 

This time was set aside to allow Brussels and Britain to hammer out the terms of their future relationship.

Trade talks started in March and the eighth round of formal negotiations is due to get underway in London tomorrow. 

However, talks are at a standstill amid disagreements on fishing rights and whether the UK will sign up to Brussels’ rules and regulations. 

Downing Street has said it does not want talks to drag into the autumn while the EU wants a deal done by the of October in order to give member states enough time to ratify it before the end of the transition period. 

Given the time constraints and the lack of progress being made both sides now view a deal by the end of the year as unlikely.  

The laws will unilaterally resolve crucial issues in the Northern Ireland protocol – including deciding what goods require customs checks between mainland Britain and the province. 

Ministers say that the changes are essential to avoid ‘confusion’ if there is no settlement by the end of the transition period in December.

However, Brussels insists that under the divorce deal those details can only be finalised by a joint committee made up of members from both sides. 

The One Nation group of moderate Tory MPs, which met last night, is said to be alarmed by the strategy, according to the Times. 

One of the MPs said: ‘This would clearly have some real issues in terms of our status as a country. If we breach an international agreement it will affect our ability to do deals with others. The ramifications of doing this are serious.’ 

But a No10 source said: ‘The protocol is contradictory in some respects – it talks about protecting the EU single market but also giving Northern Ireland unfettered access to the UK market. You can’t have both.

‘Without a trade deal, all goods passing from the mainland to Northern Ireland would be subject to tariffs, because they would be classed as being ‘at risk’ of being sold on to the EU market. 

‘Even though traders could later claim back the money by proving the goods didn’t leave the UK, the administrative costs would be considerable.’

Downing Street has sought to increase pressure on the bloc in recent weeks, and it appears to have provoked a reaction, according to messages sent to EU capitals from Brussels, seen by the Guardian. 

UK negotiator Lord Frost, pictured in Downing Street today, has demanded 'more realism' from the EU

Michel Barnier is arriving in London for a make-or-break round of negotiations

Michel Barnier (right) is arriving in London for a make-or-break round of trade negotiations with the UK’s David Frost (left in Downing Street) amid mounting gloom about the prospects of a breakthrough

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be no backtracking by the UK on its previous commitments if it wanted to reach a free trade agreement

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be no backtracking by the UK on its previous commitments if it wanted to reach a free trade agreement

EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered a thinly-veiled warning to the UK about breaking 'international law'

EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered a thinly-veiled warning to the UK about breaking ‘international law’

No-deal could exacerbate health crisis, medical leaders warn   

The health service could be overwhelmed by a no-deal Brexit, senior medical leaders have warned Boris Johnson.  

In a letter to The Times, doctors’ leaders, hospital managers and mebers of the UK pharmaceutical industry said that a failure to strike a deal with the EU could jeopardise the health of patients in both Britain and Europe. 

A combination of a no-deal, winter health issues and the coronavirus crisis could cause huge problems, the letter explained, with potential shortages of medicines as well as coronavirus testing capacity. 

The letter was written by the Brexit Health Alliance, made up of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the group representing senior NHS leaders.

Niall Dickson, co-chairman of the alliance and chief executive of the NHS Confederation, wrote: ‘Failure [to reach a deal] will result in industry, the NHS, research organisations, public health and regulators having to make significant adjustments to prepare for the end of the year.  

‘Given the expectation that additional pressure on the health and social care system created by Covid-19 is likely to continue into and past the winter of 2020 (a time when the service is stretched each year) we expect the sector to continue to experience a significant burden and risk being overwhelmed.’


Mr Johnson’s apparent refusal to make compromises on major issues such as fisheries and state aid in order to gain an eleventh-hour ‘trade-off’ has been described as ‘concerning’ by EU chiefs, who say details won’t simply be ironed out over a phone call.

There are also fears from Brussels that Home Secretary Priti Patel is opening her own separate talks on internal security as she prepares to meet ministers from the EU’s five biggest states later this month. 

European Commission leaders have urged diplomats not to agree to any proposals made in those discussions which could potentially affect the wider negotiations. 

Speaking ahead of the latest round of talks, Lord Frost said: ‘Today, I will sit down with Michel Barnier and drive home our clear message that we must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time.

‘We have now been talking for six months and can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground.

‘We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country.’

He said the UK’s position derives from the ‘fundamentals of being a sovereign state’ and called for the EU to ‘fully recognise this reality’.

‘If they can’t do that in the very limited time, we have left then we will be trading on terms like those the EU has with Australia, and we are ramping up our preparations for the end of the year,’ Lord Frost added. 

The Internal Market Bill to be tabled on Wednesday will ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid rules, which will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, will not apply in the rest of the UK.

In addition, an amendment to the Finance Bill will give ministers the power to designate which goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are considered ‘at risk’ of entering the EU single market and are therefore liable to EU tariffs. 

The spat comes after Mr Johnson declared he will walk away from trade talks in five weeks unless the EU ‘rethinks’ its demands, saying that would still be a ‘good outcome’.

The PM said there was ‘no sense’ in allowing faltering trade talks to continue beyond October 15, when EU leaders are due to hold a major summit in Brussels.

Mr Johnson said there was ‘still an agreement to be had’ but he ‘cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it’, such as the freedom for the UK to set its own laws and fish its own waters.

Key dates in the road to Britain leaving the EU: Four years of Brexit chaos

February 20, 2016: David Cameron announces the date for the referendum on whether to leave the EU. 

June 23, 2016: The UK votes to leave the EU. 

July 13, 2016: Theresa May becomes PM after seeing off challenges from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

March 29, 2017: Mrs May formally notifies the EU that the UK is triggering the Article 50 process for leaving the bloc. 

June 8, 2017: The Tories lose their majority in the snap election called by Mrs May in a bid to strengthen her hand on Brexit. Mrs May manages to stay in power propped up by the DUP. 

November 2018: Mrs May finally strikes a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, and it is approved by Cabinet – although Esther McVey and Dominic Raab resign. 

December 2018: Mrs May sees off a vote of no confidence in her leadership triggered by Tory MP furious about her Brexit deal. 

January 15-16, 2019: Mrs May loses first Commons vote on her Brexit deal by a massive 230 votes. But she sees off a Labour vote of no confidence in the government.

March 12, 2019: Despite tweaks following talks with the EU, Mrs May’s deal is defeated for a second time by 149 votes.

March 29, 2019: Mrs May’s deal is defeated for a third time by a margin of 58 votes. 

May 24, 2019: Mrs May announces she will resign on June 7, triggering a Tory leadership contest.

July 23-24, 2019: Mr Johnson wins the Tory leadership, becomes PM and eventually strikes a new deal with the EU.  

October 22, 2019: MPs approve Mr Johnson’s deal at second reading stage in a major breakthrough – but they vote down his proposed timetable and vow to try to amend the Bill later. The PM responds by pausing the legislation and demands an election.  

October 29, 2019: MPs finally vote for an election, after the SNP and Lib Dems broke ranks to vote in favour, forcing the Labour leadership to agree. 

December 12, 2019: The Tories win a stunning 80 majority after vowing to ‘get Brexit done’ during the campaign. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour records its worst performance since 1935 after he sits on the fence over Brexit, saying there should be a second referendum and he wants to remain neutral. 

December 20, 2019: The new-look Commons passes Mr Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill by a majority of 124.  

January 9: EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill cleared its Commons stages, and was sent to the House of Lords.

January 22: The EU Withdrawal Bill completed its progress through Parliament after the Commons overturned amendments tabled by peers, and the Lords conceded defeat. 

January 24: Mr Johnson signs the ratified Withdrawal Agreement in another highly symbolic step. 

January 29: MEPs approve the Withdrawal Agreement by 621 to 49. Amid emotional scenes in Brussels, some link hands to sing a final chorus of Auld Lang Syne. 

11pm, January 31: The UK formally leaves the EU – although stays bound to the bloc’s rules for at least another 11 months during the transition period.  

March 5: The first round of trade talks between the UK and the EU conclude.

June 30: Downing Street denies the option of extending the Brexit transition period as Mr Johnson repeatedly insists it will end on December 31, with or without a trade deal. 

August 21: Michel Barnier says talks have actually gone ‘backwards’ after months of negotiating deadlock as both sides concede a deal appears unlikely.