Boris Johnson on Wednesday climbed down in his fight with Conservative rebels over Brexit, but his problems mounted as a minister resigned in protest over the prime minister’s plan to break international law.
Mr Johnson offered a significant concession to rebel Tory MPs, agreeing that the House of Commons must approve at a later date controversial powers allowing the government to override Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty.
The move aimed to head off another Tory rebellion next week over the internal market bill, which would let British ministers ignore parts of the EU withdrawal treaty relating to state aid and customs in Northern Ireland.
But Richard Keen, advocate-general for Scotland, quit the government, saying he found it “increasingly difficult to reconcile” his obligations as a law officer with the objectives of Mr Johnson’s legislation.
EU officials said the bill still breached international law, regardless of whether it was Mr Johnson or MPs who activated the controversial powers. The bloc is threatening legal action.
Asked whether the parliamentary “lock” would address Brussels’ concerns, one EU official said: “No, no no.” The official said Brussels wanted Mr Johnson to remove all offending powers, not “put them in an ‘emergency use only box’ that MPs can unseal at a moment’s notice”.
Mr Johnson’s concession came after more than 20 Tory MPs refused to back the internal market bill on Monday. The rebellion was expected to swell next week in crucial Commons votes in the committee stage of its progress that analyses the bill in more detail.
On Wednesday night Number 10 issued a joint statement with two leading critics of the bill — Sir Bob Neill and Damian Green — agreeing that Mr Johnson would meet the demands of the rebels for a “lock”.
“It is agreed the parliamentary procedure suggested by some colleagues provides a clearer, more explicit democratic mandate for the use of these powers and also provides more legal certainty,” the statement said.
But the bill is still likely to face a mauling in the House of Lords — which sees itself as a constitutional guardian — given that it continues to breach the treaty signed by Mr Johnson less than a year ago.
The prime minister, questioned by MPs on Wednesday, was asked whether he thought the EU was negotiating in good faith. He replied: “I don’t think they are.”
But Mr Johnson will hope that UK and EU officials can resolve some of the issues supposedly addressed by the internal market bill in backroom negotiations before the legislation reaches the upper house later in the autumn.
In spite of the tensions raised by the bill, Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, told a meeting of diplomats in Brussels that the bloc would persevere with future-relationship talks.
According to those present, Mr Barnier hit out at “ridiculous” public statements from the UK, with the Frenchman taking issue with claims he had threatened a “blockade” on food moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The commission highlighted that some progress had been made in the talks on the issue of fisheries, but not enough, and that there had been “a change in tone for the better” at the end of last week.
But in another sign of the political chaos caused Mr Johnson’s internal market bill, Lord Keen quit on a day when ministers publicly disagreed over the implications of Mr Johnson’s internal market bill.
In his resignation letter, Lord Keen said the government faced many challenges, but that the internal market legislation as drafted “will not make these any easier”.
Lord Keen’s tortured stance on the bill came into sharp focus on Tuesday when he said in parliament that the legislation “does not of itself constitute a breach of international law or of the rule of law”.
The minister’s comments contradicted an assertion last week by Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, who told the House of Commons the bill “does break international law in a specific and limited way”.
To add to the sense of disarray at the top of the government, Mr Lewis doubled down on his position on Wednesday.
“I gave a very straight answer to parliament last week in line with the attorney-general’s position,” Mr Lewis told the Commons Northern Ireland select committee.
Charlie Falconer, shadow attorney-general, said: “This has been a week of chaos from the government’s own law officers. This has been a farce that has shamed the entire government.”
Jonathan Jones, head of the government legal department, resigned last week in protest at the internal market bill.