Sir Jonathan Jones: “I tried to persuade anyone in government who would listen not to do it”

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Profile Editor speaks with Sir Jonathan Jones KCB KC, formerly Treasury Solicitor and the most senior lawyer in government, now Durham University Visiting Professor of Law, about 1980s Durham, Brexit, and his high-profile resignation.

Sir Jonathan Jones’s career as a government lawyer, rising to become Treasury Solicitor (the most senior lawyer in the UK Civil Service), and the principal architect of the Civil Service’s legal framework for Brexit, might be said to have been a happy accident. 

“None of my family had ever been to university. We had no connection with the law, and we had no connection with Durham”, Jones readily admits. I detect a rare glimpse of pride as he says this; that of a self-made man reflecting on a rather remarkable career. 

Jones speaks with me via Zoom from the whitewashed, echoey walls of his office at Linklaters, one of the big dogs in the league of elite international law firms which dominate ‘Big Law’. He joined my call on time, to the minute. He now bides his time as a Senior Consultant advising corporate clients on governance and complex legal strategy. This supremely articulate lawyer is also now worlds away from the rather more mediocre Durham Law student he remembers being. The 1980s Jonathan Jones could, by his own admission, be found more often in St Chad’s College bar or conducting the Chapel Choir at Evensong than hunched over a law textbook. 

“…when push came to shove, the government was prepared to do something which it knew was wrong”

After graduating with a 2:2 in Law from Durham University in 1984, and after holding positions at the Motor Trading Association, Jonathan Jones took up post as a junior lawyer at the Office for Fair Trading. This was a step taken “without quite knowing what that would involve, certainly not necessarily knowing I would stay there for another 30 years”.

 Jones had found his niche; the intersection of law, policy and politics unavailable in the more traditional route to private sector law more often pursued by law graduates. He advised Prime Minister John Major on proposals which would eventually constitute the Railways Act (1993), the final stage of controversial public sector privatisation initiated by Margaret Thatcher. He worked alongside Theresa May as her legal advisor at the Home Office. For Jones, it was the tangible, real-time impact of his work which “was fascinating for me. You could be involved in creating new law and solving really complicated problems about ownership and legal structures”.  

Despite his signature modesty, Jones readily speaks of the rapid acceleration of his career, attributing his success more to a veracious work ethic than a prodigious legal mind. His brilliance was spotted early on and moves to senior roles ensued, rising to become Legal Director of the Department for Education and Skills (2002-2004), Director-General of the Attorney General’s Office (2004-2009), Director-General for Legal Affairs, Home Office (2012-2014), and finally HM Procurator General, Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Service (2014-2020). Jones’ last post was as the most senior lawyer in the Civil Service. 

The Civil Service is an hierarchical institution. A strict order of precedence exists. Junior desk officers bow in deference and admiration to Permanent Secretaries, each deities within their own department. Jones, however, seems to be an anomaly amongst both civil servants and lawyers. He never harboured an ambition to be the foremost lawyer of his generation, or as phrased by Boris Johnson; ‘World King’. 

“I’m always a bit suspicious of people who, when very junior, say they want to be a leader… the purpose can’t just be for your own gratification”. 

Perhaps that lack of grandiosity; his plain legal speak and objective perspective is why Jones has never considered a political career, or if he has, he won’t admit to it. The move from the bar to contesting a parliamentary constituency is a path well-trodden by MPs on both sides of the House of Commons. Infamously, Sir Geoffrey Cox KC MP retains a burgeoning private practice at the Bar, whilst also holding the Parliamentary seat for Torridge and West Devon, and for a period, simultaneously held the notoriously low-commitment office of Attorney General. Jonathan Jones isn’t interested. He isn’t one for bluster or promise, spin or rhetoric. 

Jones’s indelible mark on Civil Service legal capability is hard to miss. It was he who masterminded the creation of the unified Government Legal Department, merging “legal teams which were previously scattered and in some cases, not as effective as they could be”. He is no Jacob Rees-Mogg, promising to cut the Civil Service by 91,000 as a cost reduction exercise. Rather, Jones coordinated his 2,000 lawyers into a central hive of legal expertise, effectively the government’s own in-house law firm. 

“I get very cross with those who accuse the Civil Service of being Remainers”

Jones is a lawyer who can turn his hand to almost anything; structural reform of government bodies, handling major public law disputes, and navigating a legally sound solution for Brexit. He was, at times, the government’s get-out-of-jail-free card. He now occasionally sings as a Lay Clerk in the Choir of Ely Cathedral, an inheritance from student days directing the Chapel Choir at Chad’s, and is an enthusiastic mixologist, his knowledge of the dark art of cocktail making and shaking is impressive. 

Jones and his department had dedicated the years after the infamous referendum of 2016 to formulating a workable legal framework for Brexit. The Government Legal Department had, like all other government departments, been prohibited from initiating contingency planning for Brexit by Prime Minister David Cameron, and was already on the back foot on the day the Leave outcome was announced. He is quick to defend the course of the civil service over these years:

“I get very cross with those who accuse the Civil Service of being Remainers. Institutionally, for the Civil Service, there was never any question that we would support the government with finding a way to leave [the EU]. The Government now wanted to leave, and we did. If the Civil Service are to be regarded as blockers, they weren’t very effective at blocking anything, because we left. We delivered, in the end, an ordered Brexit, in legal terms.” 

The relationship between Permanent Secretary and Secretary of State has sometimes been described as fraught; a potential for friction between the direction of the politician and the pragmatism of the civil servant. Jonathan Jones served as Permanent Secretary to four successive Conservative Attorneys General: Dominic Grieve, Geoffrey Cox, Jeremy Wright and Suella Braverman. I examine Jones directly on the nature of his relationship with each of these politicians, and he is now more cautious with his choice of words; more guarded about the details he chooses to disclose, retaining a civil servant’s professionalism and lawyer’s confidentiality. 

“I’m not saying that there weren’t occasionally moments of friction…we wouldn’t always necessarily agree on the law… but I established good working relationships with all of those people”. 

It seems that the government has not yet learnt the lessons of Jonathan Jones’ departure

Over the course of our virtual discussion, Jones repeatedly pre-empts the topic of his high-profile resignation as Treasury Solicitor before I bring it up in questioning. It is clear that he expects me to touch upon it; after all, it was one of the few occasions over his career where Jones had forgone his intentionally low public profile and made a fuss. 

Sir Jonathan Jones KCB KC resigned as Treasury Solicitor in protest on 9th November 2020. He had reached an irreconcilable juncture of opinion with the Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP, then Attorney General, over the government’s plan to break international law “in a very specific and limited way” as part of its plans to breach the Northern Ireland protocol in proposing a new Internal Market Bill. 

“There is a difference between doing something legally risky but arguable, and doing something where there is no argument…when push came to shove, the government was prepared to do something which it knew was wrong. This was a different order of magnitude [in comparison to the Prorogation of Parliament, 2019]. I tried to persuade anyone in government who would listen not to do it”. 

Although it is not unusual for prominent politicians and civil servants to resign in protest at policy, I sense that, for Jones, this was a very personal decision. He left his position a year ahead of schedule and had no job to go to. It is clear that Jones was not looking to bring down the government with his exit. He admits “I had not made a calculation about what the fallout might be”. He was not expecting a U-turn in policy, rather made a value judgment, and placed his professional reputation above his job. 

As I sit to write this Profile [Thursday 18th January 2024], I am alerted by the BBC News app that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak plans to “ignore” Rule 39 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a pillar of international law, to allow the passage of the government’s radical Illegal Migration Bill. It seems that the government has not yet learnt the lessons of Jonathan Jones’ departure. 

Image: via Linklaters

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