Attorney General In Commons Showdown With Emily Thornberry Over Protocol Briefing
Attorney general Suella Braverman clashed with Labour’s Emily Thornberry over whether she disclosed her legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol to the press.
A report in the Times earlier this month suggested that Suella Braverman had given Boris Johnson the green light to “rip up” the Northern Ireland protocol that ensures checks on goods entering the province from mainland Britain.
According to the newspaper, Braverman advised the PM that overriding the agreement would be legal because the EU’s implementation of it had been “disproportionate and unreasonable”.
But Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, pointed to a convention that bans law officers from disclosing any legal advice they give without the government’s authority - a move that if broken would be a breach of the ministerial code and warrant a resignation.
The ministerial code reads: “The fact that the law officers have advised or have not advised and the content of their advice must not be disclosed outside government without their authority.”
Thornberry said: “The attorney general said again today that there is a long-standing convention that prevents her from discussing either the fact or the content of her legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol, which makes it all the more remarkable that, on Wednesday 11 May, The Times newspaper and BBC Newsnight not only disclosed the fact of her legal advice, but actually quoted from its contents.”
“Let me ask her a very straightforward question that requires only a yes or no answer: did she personally authorise the briefings to The Times and Newsnight regarding her advice on the protocol — yes or no?”
Braverman hit back to say she took the convention “incredibly seriously” and added: “I do not comment on media speculation, and that is the government’s line.
“The measures proposed there are to protect peace in Northern Ireland, to protect the Belfast agreement and to protect our precious United Kingdom.”
It is understood that Braverman felt unable to offer any further comment because confirming “yes or no” could potentially disclose the fact there has been advice.
It would then be considered a breach of convention, which does not allow for either a confirmation or denial of advice given.
Later in the Commons exchange, Braverman was then interrupted by deputy speaker Eleanor Laing, who rebuked Thornberry by saying: “It is not correct for her to sit there shouting.”
Visibly irritated, Braverman went on to say she was “very disappointed at her line of attack”.
“I love the United Kingdom; the right honourable lady is embarrassed by our flag,” Braverman continued, referring to the incident where Thornberry tweeted a picture of a house draped in the St George’s flag with a white van parked outside.
“I am proud of the leadership that the United Kingdom has demonstrated; she wants us to be run by Brussels and wants to scrap Trident.
“My heroes are Churchill and Thatcher; hers are Lenin and Corbyn — when it comes to UK leadership in the world, Labour does not have a clue!”
Tensions with the EU over the protocol have reached a new height after foreign secretary Liz Truss announced her intent to table legislation in parliament that would override parts of the protocol without the approval of the EU.
The bill will propose separate “green” and “red” lanes for goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with those destined to stay within the UK freed from EU-level checks.
Her intervention prompted an angry reaction from Brussels, which signalled that such a move could trigger a trade war between the two sides as well as legal action.
On Wednesday Ireland’s foreign affairs minister accused the UK government of pushing a “disingenuous” and “dangerous” claim that the protocol was incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
“I find it deeply disappointing that the British government has said it intends to table legislation in the coming weeks that will unilaterally disapply elements of the protocol, which is now international law,” he told the Irish parliament.
“This action is contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, where genuine trust and partnership between both governments have time and time again proved crucial to share progress.
“As the protocol is an integral part of an international agreement, such action would amount to a serious violation of international law also.
“I’ve urged the British government to reconsider, to weigh the risks that would flow from unilateral action, and to step back from this course of action as they have done previously.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.