Boris Johnson’s threat to break international law over Brexit was slammed by members of his own party, who warned it will damage the U.K.’s global standing and invite mistrust in other countries.
A series of long-standing Conservative lawmakers spoke out against the government’s plan to re-write parts of the Brexit divorce deal it agreed with the European Union only last year. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said it would be a breach in a “limited and specific way.”
That admission caused astonishment and anger among the influential rank-and-file Tories who believe the abandonment of a legally-binding treaty would hurt future attempts to secure international agreements.
“How can the government reassure future international partners that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked in Parliament.
The U.K. needs to secure a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020 or its economy will be saddled with additional costs and disruption when tariffs, quotas and customs checks are reimposed.
Roger Gale, another Conservative member of Parliament, said on Twitter that Britain’s actions will be “regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith” and that “honor is not for sale or barter.” Another senior Tory MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Lewis’s statement as a massive problem, adding it wasn’t the right way to complete Brexit.
Yet another, also critical of Johnson’s handling of the situation, suggested it could be a negotiating tactic by Johnson’s office in 10 Downing Street. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he described the move as part of the necessary crisis before a deal is reached.
“Threatening international treaties is a very risky move,” said David Henig, director of the U.K. Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy. “It is made worse by a government threatening to overturn a treaty that it agreed only eight months previously and fought a general election on the basis of being the right deal for the U.K.”
The government’s proposal to change sections of the Brexit divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland has also triggered deep concern among officials. The U.K.’s most senior government lawyer, Jonathan Jones, resigned on Tuesday, while Rowena Collins Rice, director general at the Attorney General’s office, also left her post.
The departure of Jones shows “something pretty rotten is happening” in the government, Charles Falconer, Labour’s shadow attorney general, told Times Radio.
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to comment on the reasons for Jones’s departure. Collins Rice, whose departure had been in the works for several months, is taking up another public appointment, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
The controversy facing Johnson centers on the Brexit divorce deal’s requirement that Northern Ireland continues to be bound by the EU’s customs rules after Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on Dec. 31.
That effectively established a border in the Irish Sea, with businesses in Northern Ireland facing the prospect of having to file customs paperwork if they want to move goods to the rest of the U.K.
In a bill due to be published on Wednesday, the government plans to give ministers the powers to waive the requirement for such paperwork, should the issue not be settled by joint talks with the EU this year. It also plans to give ministers the power to determine unilaterally which goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be liable to pay tariffs in the event the U.K. and EU fail to reach a trade accord.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, branded the U.K.’s plan as “hugely problematic and illegal,” telling lawmakers in Dublin that he was gravely concerned the U.K. is trying to undermine the deal it signed.
Johnson’s office said the prime minister made promises prior to signing the divorce deal that he wanted to uphold, including that there would be unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The government also says that it signed the Withdrawal Agreement expecting to then reach a trade accord with the EU — and is only providing a safety net in case those negotiations fail.
“There are clear precedents for the U.K. and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change,” Lewis said.
The government could still be leaving itself open to a challenge in the courts, risking a second major legal defeat for the prime minister. Last year, Britain’s highest court found Johnson’s decision to suspend, or prorogue, Parliament to avoid debate about Brexit was unlawful.
“That sound you hear?” tweeted George Freeman, a Conservative who represents Mid-Norfolk. “It’s the sound of the Supreme Court preparing to remind Ministers that intentionally breaking the law — even in a very specific and limited way — is, well, unlawful.”