Cross-party calls grow for Brexit le­gal ad­vice to be pub­lished in full

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Peter Walker Po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent

Pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide de­tails of le­gal ad­vice about a pos­si­ble Brexit deal is grow­ing, with the DUP, Labour and Lib Dems de­mand­ing it be pub­lished, fol­low­ing calls from cab­i­net min­is­ters to see the full doc­u­ment.

One op­tion could be for Labour to seek to force pub­li­ca­tion via a Com­mons mo­tion, as the party did with the gov­ern­ment’s Brexit im­pact as­sess­ments.

Jef­frey Don­ald­son, the DUP’s chief whip at West­min­ster, said the party, which sup­ports Theresa May in gov­ern­ment, would like to see the full doc­u­ment pub­lished, al­low­ing not only min­is­ters but MPs and the pub­lic to as­sess it.

The shadow Brexit sec­re­tary, Keir Starmer, said the ad­vice must be re­leased to MPs so they can scru­ti­nise the doc­u­ment, while the Lib Dems called for the ad­vice to be pub­lished in full.

The ad­vice, drawn up by the at­tor­ney gen­eral, Ge­of­frey Cox, at the re­quest of Theresa May, looks into the var­i­ous op­tions con­nected to the back­stop, seen as the fi­nal ma­jor im­passe be­fore a deal can be agreed.

At a cab­i­net meet­ing on Tues­day, Cox gave min­is­ters a summary of the ad­vice, and told them that if the UK in­sisted on the right to uni­lat­er­ally end a back­stop, op­posed by the EU, it in­creased the risk of no deal.

It is un­der­stood that some min­is­ters, among them Michael Gove, asked the prime min­is­ter whether they could see the full le­gal ad­vice drawn up by Cox, rather than just hear­ing his summary and in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

Don­ald­son told BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme: “It’s in the pub­lic in­ter­est that we un­der­stand fully what is hap­pen­ing here. We’ve had that com­mit­ment al­ready from the gov­ern­ment, that they will tell us what the le­gal ad­vice they have is in re­la­tion to the back­stop.”

He said: “If the House of Com­mons is go­ing to have a mean­ing­ful vote on a deal upon which this le­gal ad­vice is very im­por­tant, then I think peo­ple are en­ti­tled to know what that le­gal ad­vice is.”

The Lib Dems called for the ad­vice to be pub­lished. The party’s Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, said: “Re­fus­ing to pub­lish le­gal ad­vice on Brexit makes a mock­ery of the dis­cred­ited mantra ‘take back con­trol’.”

Speak­ing in Brus­sels, where he is meet­ing EU lead­ers, Starmer said a back­stop agree­ment had to be ro­bust, mean­ing it was “es­sen­tial MPs are given the op­por­tu­nity to scru­ti­nise the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s le­gal ad­vice be­fore vot­ing on the fi­nal deal”.

He said: “The pub­lic have the right to know pre­cisely what the cab­i­net has signed up to and what the im­pli­ca­tions are for the fu­ture.”

Labour’s aim would be for the ad­vice to be avail­able to MPs, as hap­pened with the Brexit im­pact as­sess­ments. There were made avail­able af­ter Labour forced their re­lease through a so-called hum­ble ad­dress mo­tion.

This, or an amend­ment to a bill, re­main op­tions for ex­tract­ing the le­gal ad­vice, but it is un­der­stood Labour want to first await the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse.

Down­ing Street has said there is a long-stand­ing con­ven­tion that the gov­ern­ment does not dis­cuss le­gal ad­vice, “or the ex­is­tence thereof”.

Un­der the back­stop idea, which of­fi­cials will try to fi­nalise be­fore an­other po­ten­tial cab­i­net meet­ing later in the week, the UK could main­tain a tem­po­rary cus­toms ar­range­ment with the EU with­out be­ing forced to ac­cept a border in the Ir­ish Sea.

May told her cab­i­net to “stand by their di­aries”, with gov­ern­ment sources sug­gest­ing min­is­ters could be sum­moned for an emer­gency meet­ing later this week to sign off the back­stop pro­posal be­fore pre­sent­ing it to Brus­sels, pos­si­bly later this month.

She warned that, while she wanted to strike a deal, this could not be “at any cost” and would de­pend on an “ac­cept­able” frame­work for a fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with the EU, ex­pected to be set out in a sep­a­rate po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion.

Hopes have grown in re­cent days that the is­sue of the back­stop – which seeks to put in place a guar­an­tee for the EU to avoid a hard Ir­ish border if no per­ma­nent so­lu­tion can be found – could be re­solved, paving the way for a deal.

Don­ald­son re­it­er­ated that while his party hoped for an agree­ment, it be­lieved a no-deal de­par­ture re­mained very pos­si­ble.

“We haven’t got a deal at the mo­ment, and it’s clear from the rhetoric com­ing from both Brus­sels and Dublin that they are so far op­pos­ing what the prime min­is­ter has sug­gested in terms of prag­matic ar­range­ments to deal with the Ir­ish border,” he said.

The party’s con­cerns about the back­stop went be­yond whether it would be time-lim­ited, Don­ald­son said. He agreed that hav­ing no time limit was seen as com­mon sense.

”If that was what the back­stop was just about, yes, it would be,” he said. “But it’s not, of course, be­cause the back­stop is about ef­fec­tively an­nex­ing North­ern Ire­land from Great Bri­tain, in terms of ty­ing it into a sin­gle mar­ket sep­a­rate from the rest of the United King­dom.”

Pho­to­graph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shut­ter­stock

Ge­of­frey Cox, the at­tor­ney gen­eral, told min­is­ters on Tues­day that if the UK in­sisted on the rightto uni­lat­er­ally end a back­stop, it in­creased therisk of no deal.

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