Friends and former colleagues of the government lawyer Sir Jonathan Jones said his resignation suggested he had been put in an intolerable position, with a cabinet minister admitting the government intended to break the law.
Jones resigned on Tuesday, giving no reason in his departure email to colleagues, but Whitehall sources and former colleagues said he had clashed with the attorney general, Suella Braverman, over the government’s intention to override parts of the withdrawal agreement.
It is understood external legal advice was sought, which also advised the move was against international law. The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, confirmed the change “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
Friends of Jones suggested he had felt dissatisfied for some time. They pointed to a tweet of which he referred to the lawyer David Allen Green, who had criticised the Home Office for blaming “activist lawyers” for stopping deportation flights. Green noted that “activist lawyers are only as effective as the law enables them to be … So what the home secretary means is that the law itself and the courts are frustrating the removals. And that, home secretary, is called the ‘rule of law’.”
Jones’ resignation was met with dismay by lawyers and politicians alike. Charlie Falconer, the former solicitor general, said: “He is very modest, he is very clever, a cerebral lawyer but not pompous and he always saw his role to come up with pragmatic solutions to the government he served.
“He backs away from the limelight, so I am absolutely amazed. He is absolutely not the sort of person to do something dramatic. He is always practical. He would never have resigned if the QC had advised a different view – he is totally lacking in self-importance.”
Philippe Sands QC, professor of laws and director of the centre on international courts and tribunals at University College, London, said he believed that for Jones, the dispute over breaking the international agreement with the EU was “the final straw”.
“His going raises very serious questions for other civil servants on offering legal advice,” Sands said. “It also raises very serious questions about the UK’s commitment to rule of law. The UK abroad has been renowned for proceeding very carefully. Their respect for a country they have looked up to in its commitment to the rule of law is crumbling. Amongst those charged with giving legal advice to the government, morale is very low.”
Keir Starmer said he had known Jones during his career as director of public prosecutions. “Jonathan is a first-class lawyer who has given excellent advice over the years, and I’m absolutely sure he wouldn’t have done this lightly,” the Labour leader said.
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general who employed Jones seven years ago, described him as a “discreet and honourable” public servant who would have come to a decision after exhausting all other options. “The attorney general should not be remaining in post. It undermines the rule of law and undercuts this country’s position,” he said.
Lord Anderson, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said he would ask an urgent question in the House of Lords about the proposed illegality. He said the court of appeal had explicitly ruled in 2018 that the ministerial code applied to both domestic and international law.
John Bowers, the employment QC, said it was “very worrying to see the resignation of the excellent Jonathan Jones – it feels like we are living through a constitutional coup”.
Concern was also raised by the president of the Law Society, Simon Davis who said: “The rule of law is not negotiable. Our commitment to the rule of law is key to attracting international business to the UK and to maintaining faith in our justice system.”
Jessica Simor QC, who sits on three of the Attorney General’s lawyers’ panels and was involved in the article 50 Brexit case, said: “Officials give impartial advice to ministers which they should follow when it comes to the law. If they are told it’s illegal then they shouldn’t do it, which is presumably why Brandon Lewis did not lie to parliament.
“He has clearly been given that advice and had he said anything else he would be lying to parliament … But what is the point [for Jonathan Jones] of being a paid legal adviser if your advice is ignored? You can’t carry on.”