Boris Johnson’s former attorney-general has accused him of doing “unconscionable” damage to Britain’s international reputation in a devastating attack on the prime minister’s plans to tear up parts of the Brexit treaty with the EU.
In an intervention that will heighten unease among Conservative MPs before a week of votes on the government’s internal market bill, Geoffrey Cox said that he could not support efforts to overwrite the withdrawal agreement in the Commons.
Mr Cox, 60, who was sacked from the cabinet by Mr Johnson in February, concluded that he could not support the bill after several days of intense talks with the prime minister and Downing Street advisers, saying that Mr Johnson risked undermining “the standing and reputation of Britain in the world” by breaching international law.
He had refrained from joining the chorus of criticism from Tory grandees over the plans but has broken cover in an article for The Times today to accuse the prime minister of undertaking “to observe treaty obligations with his fingers crossed behind his back”.
He writes: “When the Queen’s minister gives his word, on her behalf, it should be axiomatic that he will keep it, even if the consequences are unpalatable.”
Ministers have “a duty to interpret and execute both the agreement and the protocol in good faith”, Mr Cox adds. He says that checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland were an “unpalatable but inescapable” feature of the agreement.
More than a dozen Conservative MPs had been awaiting Mr Cox’s opinion before deciding whether to back the bill, which has its second reading in the Commons today. They are now likely to join a rebellion.
Mr Cox’s comments echoed his decisive intervention before the second meaningful vote on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement last year, which fell after he told MPs that Britain could remain locked in a customs union with the EU. He writes : “It is unconscionablethat this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way.”
In a direct attack on his successor, Suella Braverman, and Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, he added: “What ministers should not do . . . is to take or use powers permanently and unilaterally to rewrite portions of an agreement into which this country freely entered just a few months ago.”
The leading barrister Lord Pannick, QC, told The Times that “no responsible or reputable lord chancellor or attorney-general could remain in office” if they supported the bill.
Mr Cox was close to Mr Johnson before his sacking. He spoke at his launch to become Tory leader and as attorney-general defended the prime minister’s move to prorogue parliament.
With a Commons majority of 80 and the support of an additional eight DUP MPs Mr Johnson is all but certain of winning today’s vote on the second reading of the internal market bill.
Rebel Tory MPs say they will hold fire until the Commons votes on an amendment tabled by the Tory chairman of the justice committee, Sir Bob Neill, due a week today.
As the prospect of a trade deal with the EU diminishes, car makers from Britain and the rest of the bloc have joined forces to demand negotiators “pull out all the stops” to prevent Britain reverting to World Trade Organisation rules from the start of next year. Jobs would be lost and car prices would rise if border tariffs were imposed, the 23 groups said.