If government can’t respect the law, why should anyone else?

Government can expect a rebellion from the backbenches over its plans to break the law.

If government can’t respect the law, why should anyone else? Getty Images

If the UK Government has no respect for the rule of law, why should anyone else?

When Brandon Lewis told MPs yesterday that the government was prepared to break international law, what was extraordinary was the casual way in which it was done.

Lewis did not even have the good grace to blush, for he must have known that his remarks amounted to a very public trashing of a cornerstone of a basic principle of a democracy: respect for the rule of law.

Boris Johnson has form in displaying a disregard to an over sensitivity on hard-boiled constitutional principles.

After all, the current Prime Minister was given a judicial mauling last year when the Supreme Court declared the way in which the government had attempted to prorogue parliament was illegal.

The current administration is doing nothing to dispel the charge that any protocol, any diplomatic norm, any sacrosanct constitutional principle is utterly expedient if it is inconvenient.

Perhaps this is just another case of a belief that the end justifies the means.

The matter at hand – whether the EU Withdrawal Agreement places Northern Ireland in a different rules-based customs system – is not really the point, despite what ministers say.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May was quick to her feet yesterday to ask why anyone would trust the UK if this was how government was to be conducted.

Her concerns have been echoed by Lord Darroch, a former UK ambassador to the United States. And by Tories chairing the defence and foreign affairs select committees.

If the government is serious in this threat, it might have bitten off more than it can chew, even with a large majority. 

I hesitate to call this a precedent, since precedents are followed. It is hard to imagine another government being quite so cavalier in the matter of calculated dishonour.

Lewis gave his answer yesterday to Sir Bob Neill, the jolly and utterly loyal Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst. He has been a party member for 50 years but warned last night he might vote against legislation designed to wilfully ignore a provision the government had previously agreed to. He will not be alone.

As the issue at hand is Brexit related, Sir Keir Starmer decided to ignore it at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Being a former director of public prosecutions, you would have thought this was right up his street.

But Sir Keir does not want his party to become embroiled in anything Brexit related. They are where they are because of Brexit and he has no intention of touching it with a parliamentary bargepole. Unless that is a Tory rebellion turns the issue into a matter of the Prime Minister’s authority.

It was left therefore to Ian Blackford, the SNPs Westminster leader to lead the charge. He accused Boris Johnson of creating a rogue state, something the Prime Minister was quick to refute.

If any sort of precedent is created by this threat, then the consequences for the independence debate was not lost on the Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael.

If Johnson can ignore the provisions of a Treaty, how could he criticise any Holyrood administration organising a second independence referendum when Westminster had said ‘no, you have no legal authority to do that’.

When ministers were mulling over what might still be a piece of negotiating bravado, it is unlikely the consequences for the Scottish constitutional debate were uppermost in their deliberations.

Yesterday one senior legal advisor quit his post. Mystic Meg does not have to see the mist in her crystal ball clearly in order to see that this was a case of a public servant being so appalled that he was not prepared to dignify a position by remaining in his job.

And in the heat of this, where is the Attorney General? Suella Braverman MP is nowhere to be seen or even heard. By her silence she condones what should be a resignation matter for any law officer worth their salt.

Of course, recent weeks has seen the government U-turn on so many issues that it is in a permanent spin. This stance might be ripe for keeping the spin going for a little while longer.

If the Prime Minister persists, there will be rebellion and it will be far from edifying from a Conservative point of view.