Boris Johnson has suffered another embarrassing blow over his plans to bypass international law on Brexit, as Lord Keen confirmed that he tendered his resignation from the frontbench in the House of Lords.
Keen told the Scottish paper the Press and Journal: “I tendered my resignation to the prime minister first thing this morning, I’ve not yet heard back from the prime minister.”
Asked whether Johnson could do anything to persuade him to stay, Keen repeated, “I tendered my resignation to the prime minister first thing this morning, I really can’t say any more.”
No announcement from the government has yet been forthcoming, suggesting ministers may be trying to persuade the senior law officer to remain in his post. When Johnson’s spokesman was asked whether Keen was still in post, he said he had “nothing further” to say.
Keen, the government’s advocate general for Scotland, was involved in an angry clash with the shadow attorney general, Charles Falconer, over the internal market bill on Tuesday.
The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality, which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.
This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.
The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster “power grab”, and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.
It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.
The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”.
Keen appeared to suggest that the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, had “answered the wrong question” when he said the bill would break the law.
Lewis’s concession last week that the legislation “does break international law in a specific and limited way” provoked a backlash among Conservative MPs.
When challenged about the remark in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Keen said: “It is my view that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland essentially answered the wrong question.”
Lewis flatly rejected that explanation on Wednesday, telling MPs on the Northern Ireland affairs committee: “I’ve spoken to Lord Keen, when he’s looked at the specific question I was asked last week. He has agreed with me that the answer I gave was correct. That answer I gave reflects the government legal advice.”
The Guardian understands Keen had previously told friends he was staying to “steady the ship”. One ally said: “That’s what he seems to have been doing.”
Downing Street initially endorsed Lewis’s line about breaking international law, but has appeared to take a more emollient approach in recent days after a string of senior MPs, including the former chancellor Sajid Javid, refused to back the legislation.
Talks are continuing between the government and backbench rebels to try to secure their support – perhaps by limiting the circumstances in which the law, which would override aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol, could be used.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, denied on Wednesday that he was “wobbly” over the legislation, as claimed by some colleagues. But he said he would resign if the government broke international law in a way that could not be “fudged”.
The government’s chief lawyer, Jonathan Jones, stepped down last week as ministers prepared to publish the legislation.
The Guardian revealed last week that Keen had warned that tearing up aspects of the withdrawal agreement would breach the ministerial code – a view rejected by the attorney general, Suella Braverman.
“It is his opinion that [the ministerial code] includes the obligation under international law to act in good faith with respect to the UK’s treaty obligations,” an official paper leaked to the Guardian said.
However, Braverman and Michael Ellis, the solicitor general, said they were confident there was no breach of the code.
Lady Chakrabarti, the former shadow attorney general, who faced Keen across the dispatch box in the House of Lords said: “All true Conservatives will be searching their souls today. Governments of both sides have broken domestic and international law this century; sometimes catastrophically.“But never before, have they bragged about it in advance. There aren’t enough police officers on the planet to achieve the rule of law by force. If there were, who would protect us from them and their paymasters? This is not Conservatism in action, it is something far more terrifying. It has reared its head before in Europe and it doesn’t end well.”
News – Lord Keen hands in resignation over Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan