It was last week that questions over Lord Keen’s position as one of the government’s senior law advisers first emerged.
A three-page letter, marked “official – sensitive”, seen by the Guardian, revealed his serious reservations over Downing Street’s intention to override the EU withdrawal agreement.
It summarised the legal opinions of the government’s three law officers: the attorney general, Suella Braverman, the solicitor general, Michael Ellis, and Keen, then the advocate general for Scotland.
The letter showed that Keen, who was also the Ministry of Justice spokesman in the Lords, was alone in advising the government it would breach the ministerial code if ministers defied international law and overrode the withdrawal agreement.
Despite that revelation, Keen held the government line on the necessity of the bill, refining its position by arguing in the Lords that “the bill does not of itself constitute a breach of international law or of the rule of law”.
On Tuesday, however, he took a different tack, appearing in the Lords and putting himself at odds with Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, whose startling admission last week that the internal market bill breached international law triggered the latest Brexit crisis.
Keen suggested that Lewis’s words should be qualified because he had “essentially answered the wrong question” when he spoke to MPs. But on Wednesday, the Northern Ireland secretary, giving evidence to the Commons Northern Ireland affairs select committee, emphatically rejected that suggestion.
He had given the “correct” answer, Lewis said, and it was a “very straight answer” that was “absolutely in line” with legal advice. Doubling down, he said he had read from a script.
“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. My answer was in line with the legal opinion given by the law officers. The position I took at the dispatch box is not a breach of the ministerial code, but I am not the arbiter of that.”
Lewis said he had spoken to Keen and that he had “agreed that the answer I gave was the correct answer”.
Over the previous hours, there is now known to have been a behind-the-scenes clash with the government, which had been attempting to maintain a unified front, at least at cabinet level.
Keen’s attempt to impose a different narrative on the legislation seems to have failed. Later on Wednesday, he confirmed he had handed his resignation to the prime minister, bringing to an end a years-long tenure as a minister – and adding to the government’s Brexit headaches.