BREXIT LAW CHIEF FACES SUSPENSION
Bercow allows MPs to debate fate of Attorney General after he refused to publish full advice on May’s deal
BRITAIN’S law chief could face suspension from Parliament today after refusing to publish his full legal advice on Brexit.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has been under pressure from opposition MPs to reveal his briefing to the Government.
In a dramatic move that appeared calculated to embarrass the Government, Commons Speaker John Bercow last night granted MPs the chance to debate whether contempt of Parliament has been committed. A debate today could result in Mr Cox, or Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington being suspended.
With Tory Eurosceptics and the DUP joining all opposition parties in critising the Government’s stance, Mrs May now faces the real prospect of defeat over her Brexit deal on December 11.
Mr Cox, who robustly defended her deal yesterday, said he was ready to face ‘ sanction’, but insisted it was not in the national interest to publish the full advice.
Instead he published a 43-page ‘legal position’ setting out the issues in law. Senior Tories believe the contempt charge is a stunt designed to wreck Mrs May’s efforts to promote her deal ahead of a crunch vote next week.
But Mr Bercow, who has made no secret of his opposition to Brexit, last night told MPs there was an ‘arguable case that contempt has been committed.’
The vote on whether the Government is in contempt will be held immediately before Mrs May opens five days of debate on her Brexit deal. The row intensified as Mr Cox admitted the country would have no ‘unilateral’ right to quit the controversial Irish backstop, which could see the whole of the UK kept in the customs union ‘indefinitely’ after Brexit.
But in a boost for Mrs May, the Eurosceptic cabinet minister said the backstop was a ‘calculated risk... but one worth taking’.
He also said he was backing the PM’s Brexit deal because ‘I do not believe that we are likely to be entrapped in it permanently’.
The unvarnished advice was designed to persuade Eurosceptic opponents to fall in line.
On a day of developments, Mrs May told ITV’s This Morning she would still be PM in two-weeks’ time. Her chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins admitted the backstop plan was an ‘uncomfortable necessity’ for Britain and the EU.
Downing Street denied reports that the vote next Tuesday could be postponed if the effort to persuade 100 Tory rebels fails to achieve a breakthrough soon. Meanwhile, the head of insurance giant Aviva said business wanted MPs to back the deal, saying markets would respond ‘really positively to a deal going through.’
Home Secretary Sajid Javid also confirmed that post-Brexit immigration plans have been delayed following a Cabinet row over Mrs May’s drive to bar low skilled migrants getting visas. Mr Cox’s ‘legal position’ warns that, once approved, the backstop would continue to apply ‘unless and until its provisions are superseded by a subsequent agreement between the UK and the EU’.
But Labour, the DUP – which props up the Tories in the Commons – and some Eurosceptic MPs said the document did not comply with Parliament’s demand for the full legal advice. Labour MP Chris Williamson asked Mr Cox if he was ‘ready to be expelled?’ And Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said the law chief had no right to deny the demand of a ‘higher authority’ to publish the advice in full.
The Attorney General flatly denied he was refusing its publication to spare the government embarrassment, saying: ‘I cannot take a step that I firmly and truly believe would be contrary to the public interest.’
Mr Bercow’s decision came after shadow Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer and counterparts in five other opposition parties including the DUP last night wrote to Mr Bercow over the refusal to publish the advice in full.
In a rowdy session in the Commons yesterday, Mr Cox admitted he had ‘wrestled’ with his conscience before deciding to back the deal. He confirmed that in terms of strict international law, the UK could be kept in the backstop ‘indefinitely’, but said the deal was a ‘ calculated risk’ that MPs would have to ‘weigh up’.
He said the EU did not want the UK in the backstop for fear it would give British firms a competitive advantage. And he said the backstop would eventually succumb to legal challenge.
Former chancellor Kenneth Clarke said Mr Cox’s comments had ‘put paid to quite a lot of the paranoia and conspiracy theories’ peddled by critics.
But Tory Brexiteer Sir Desmond Swayne said it simply confirmed the backstop plan was a ‘trap’.
The DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the legal advice showed the Brexit deal was ‘deeply unsatisfactory’.
‘Wrestled with his conscience’