The head of the UK’s government legal department has quit over suggestions that Boris Johnson is trying to row back on parts of last year’s Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.
Jonathan Jones is the sixth senior Whitehall official to resign this year, amid growing tensions between the prime minister and staff at the top of the civil service.
Two officials with knowledge of the situation told the Financial Times that the Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary of the Government Legal Department was leaving his position due to a dispute with Downing Street over its plans to challenge parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Those close to Sir Jonathan said he was “very unhappy” about the decision to overwrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the 2019 withdrawal agreement, with new powers in the UK internal market bill.
Number 10 has insisted the new powers were “limited” and were needed to bring clarity to the protocol agreed and signed by Mr Johnson last October.
The internal market bill will put powers in the hands of British ministers to interpret the Northern Ireland protocol. But Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is expected to insist in Brexit negotiations in London on Tuesday that the UK must implement the protocol in full.
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, tweeted: “I trust the British government to implement the withdrawal agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership.
“The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island & integrity of the single market.”
Sir Jonathan became head of the government’s legal department in 2014, having previously worked as a legal advisor and solicitor at the Home Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Department for Education. He is also a barrister.
Sir Jonathan’s departure follows the exit of cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, Simon McDonald from the Foreign Office, Philip Rutnam from the Home Office, Richard Heaton from the Ministry of Justice and Jonathan Slater from the Department for Education.
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, wants civil servants to take more responsibility when things go wrong, but the failure of any minister to quit during the coronavirus crisis has heightened tensions. He has also promised that a “hard rain” will fall across Whitehall.
Sir Jonathan’s formal departure is expected to be announced on Tuesday. The Cabinet Office declined to comment.