Boris Johnson has been unable to tell a group of senior MPs whether one of his government ministers remains in post amid his controversial bid to override the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU.
The prime minister, appearing before the House of Commons Liaison Committee, was asked to confirm reports that Lord Keen of Elie, the advocate general for Scotland, had quit his role.
But Mr Johnson was only able to say, to his knowledge, that “conversations on that matter are still continuing”.
Lord Keen was reported to have offered his resignation to the prime minister on Wednesday after sowing confusion over the government’s previous admission that proposed Brexit legislation would break international law.
The UK Internal Market Bill, which cleared its first parliamentary hurdle to becoming law earlier this week, has been heavily criticised in both Westminster and Brussels.
The EU has threatened legal action and said it could threaten ongoing trade talks on a future EU-UK relationship.
Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons that the bill, if passed, would reinterpret the Northern Ireland Protocol – a key part of the withdrawal agreement – and so break international law “in a very specific and limited way”.
However, in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Lord Keen told peers that the bill does not “constitute a breach of international law or of the rule of law”.
He also claimed Mr Lewis had “essentially answered the wrong question” when asked about the bill in the Commons.
“I have satisfied myself as to the correct legal position in this context,” Lord Keen said.
But on Wednesday morning, Mr Lewis contradicted Lord Keen’s assertion and said his comments in the Commons last week were “absolutely in line” with the government’s legal advice on the matter.
He said: “I gave a very straight answer to parliament last week in line with the attorney general’s position.
“My position is absolutely in line with the legal advice that the attorney general put out.”
Speaking to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mr Lewis added: “I read out something very specific because I wanted to ensure that what I said… to make sure that I was giving the House a straight answer.”
In Brussels on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her annual State of the Union speech to warn the UK cannot unilaterally set aside the withdrawal agreement.
“This withdrawal agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it line by line, word by word, and together we succeeded,” she said.
“The European Union and the UK jointly agreed that it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland and we will never backtrack on that.
“This agreement has been ratified by this house and the House of Commons. It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded, disapplied.
“This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”
Mrs von der Leyen said Margaret Thatcher had always insisted the UK honoured its treaty commitments.
She quoted the former UK prime minister as saying: “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade.”
Mrs von der Leyen added: “This was true then and this is true today. Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”
A top civil servant and the government’s most senior lawyer had already quit over the row at Westminster over the UK Internal Market Bill.
Sir Jonathan Jones, permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, will leave his post before his five-year term was due to end next April.
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