Keen hangs on

But for how much longer?

So it’s not quite farewell then to Lord Keen of Elie QC — a man of many parts.

“Conversations on that matter are continuing,” the prime minister said just now when asked whether Keen had resigned from his government.

As advocate general for Scotland, he is one of the UK government’s three law officers. But unlike the attorney general Suella Braverman, and the solicitor general Michael Ellis, Richard Keen was appointed Queen’s Counsel on merit, long before he joined the government.

Admitted as an advocate in 1980, he also represented the government in court — notably in the two challenges brought by Gina Miller over triggering Brexit (in 2016) and prorogation (last year). As advocate general, representing the UK government in the second Miller case, he was opposed by counsel for the lord advocate, representing the Scottish government.

After taking silk in 1993, Keen became dean of the Faculty of Advocates in 2007 — equivalent in Scotland to chair of the bar in England and Wales. He remained dean until 2014, when he became chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. In 2015, he was appointed advocate general for Scotland by David Cameron and given a life peerage.

In 2016, he was given the additional role of Ministry of Justice spokesperson in the Lords. Although this is not paid as a ministerial role, he was listed on the Ministry of Justice website as the second most senior minister — a position that fully respected his intellect and experience.

I first met Richard Keen 20 years ago, when he represented one of the two men accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1998. In 2001, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah was found not guilty of 270 counts of murder by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands.

It was Keen’s first criminal case. But though his previous experience had been as a commercial and property lawyer, he was well placed to handle the mass of detailed evidence heard by three judges sitting without a jury.

In 2009, Keen was called to the English Bar and joined Blackstone Chambers.

As a Conservative in Scotland, he was used to being out on a limb. As minister answering questions in the Lords from well-informed and experienced opponents, he never seemed lost for words. In court, he was never shy or retiring. The confusion over his position on Wednesday afternoon seemed out of character for a lawyer who has always appeared crisp and decisive.

It emerged that he had “tendered his resignation to the prime minister first thing this morning”. Boris Johnson clearly did not accept it. At time of writing, we do not know exactly what precipitated Keen’s move. But it was clearly an honourable thing to do.

And perhaps inevitable. There were clear contradictions between what Brandon Lewis said last week (“this does break international law in a very specific and limited way”); between what Keen said yesterday that Lewis meant (the Northern Ireland secretary had “essentially answered the wrong question”); and what Lewis said today he meant (it was a “very straight answer” which was “absolutely in line” with legal advice).  

As Melanie Phillips writes here:

Keen’s remarks seemed to embody a disingenuous confusion of the indisputable lawfulness of the bill itself with the all-too disputable lawfulness of the government action it would enable. 

It seems that the deal the government has done with Sir Bob Neill may have been enough to persuade Keen to stay. But for how much longer?

Update: about an hour, as it turned out.

Further update: In his resignation letter, Keen told the prime minister:

Over the past week I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what I consider to be my obligations as a Law Officer with your policy intentions with respect to the UKIM [United Kingdom Internal Market] Bill.

I have endeavoured to identify a respectable argument for the provisions at clauses 42 to 45 of the Bill but it is now clear that this will not meet your policy intentions.
In these circumstances I consider that it is my duty to tender my resignation from your Government.

Your Government faces challenges on a number of fronts and I fear that the UKIM Bill in its present form will not make these any easier. I wish you well in dealing with these issues.