Commons row as Brexit legal advice published
Theresa May has been accused of “misleading Parliament, inadvertently or otherwise” as the full legal advice on her Brexit deal was published.
The Scottish National Party said the PM had “concealed the facts” after the advice, which warns of an “indefinite” backstop deal with the EU, came out.
Ministers were found in contempt of Parliament on Tuesday for providing only a legal overview of the deal.
But the PM said the two documents were consistent and the position was clear.
While the UK would have no unilateral right to withdraw from the backstop – a measure designed to prevent the return of physical checks on the Irish border – she insisted neither the UK nor the EU wanted the backstop to come into force in the first place.
But the Democratic Unionists said the legal viewpoint was “devastating” for Mrs May’s prospects of getting the backing of MPs for her deal in a vote on 11 December.
The government argued that attorney general Geoffrey Cox’s analysis of the Brexit deal, published on Monday, was adequate and disclosing the full advice would be against the national interest.
Labour and other opposition parties said ministers had “wilfully” refused to comply with a binding vote in the Commons last month which demanded full disclosure and MPs agreed in a vote on Tuesday.
What does the full advice to PM say?
In the six-page letter, dated 13 November, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the proposed backstop arrangement with the EU to prevent a hard Irish border could “endure indefinitely”.
The UK, he said, would not be able to “lawfully exit” the arrangement without a subsequent political agreement and this could lead to “stalemate”.
The Irish backstop, a key feature of the EU withdrawal agreement, would see the whole of the UK remain in a single customs territory with the EU until their future relationship was sorted out.
Its legal status has become a defining issue for many Tory critics of the PM’s deal – who say the UK could be trapped indefinitely because there is no unilateral right to withdraw.
In his letter to the PM, Mr Cox said signing up to the backstop was a “political decision”.
“Despite statements that it is not intended to be permanent… in international law the protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place,” he wrote.
“In the absence of a right of termination, there is a legal risk that the UK might become subject to protracted and repeated rounds of negotiations.”
“This risk must be weighed against the political and economic imperative of both sides to reach an agreement that constitutes a politically stable and permanent basis for their future relationship.”
Analysis: In black and white
The BBC’s legal correspondent Clive Coleman
When lawyers give legal advice they are expected to speak frankly.
Many will conclude this advice is franker and starker than the way in which the government has presented the legal implications of the Withdraw Agreement.
In particular on the Northern Ireland backstop, it is there in black and white, that in the absence of an agreement replacing it, the backstop will continue indefinitely.
The UK could not force the EU to conclude an agreement bringing it to an end.
That punctures the government’s optimism on the issue.
Whereas Article 50 allowed the UK to pull out of the EU, there is no provision for the UK to pull out of the withdrawal agreement. That will pour petrol on the flames of the political debate.
May defends advice at Prime Minister’s Questions
The prime minister came under fire at Prime Minister’s Questions from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford.
“Is it time that the prime minister took responsibility for concealing the facts on her Brexit deal from members in this House and the public?
Will she take responsibility?”
The PM told MPs there was “no difference” between the 50-page legal overview published on Monday and Mr Cox’s letter from November published on Wednesday.
She also said she had made it clear that the UK could not unilaterally leave the backstop plan, so had not been at odds with the legal advice, which made it clear the UK had no sovereign right to withdraw.
But she insisted that it gave the UK a number of competitive advantages and therefore the EU would not want the UK “to be in it any longer than necessary”.
But the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said it was now apparent why the government had tried to “hide” the legal position.
Labour said the advice showed the “central weakness” of the PM’s Brexit deal while the Lib Dems said it would leave the UK trapped in a “Brexit hamster wheel”.
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