Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Britain’s government at risk of contempt of parliament over Brexit advice

Theresa May addresses the media during the G20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires Argentina Theresa May addresses the media during the G20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires Argentina
Michele Schwartz | 04 December, 2018, 00:51

Monday's furore was kick-started by the government's publication of a 52-page summary of the legal counsel it received regarding May's Brexit plan.

But the legal advice says the so-called "backstop", or guarantee of no hard border between European Union member Ireland and UK-governed Northern Ireland, "will continue to apply unless and until it is superseded" by new trading arrangements with the EU.

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour's Shadow Brexit Secretary, said: "The Government has failed to publish the Attorney General's full and final legal advice to the Cabinet as ordered by Parliament.

This would be a collision course between the government and Parliament", he told Sky News.

May is battling to persuade lawmakers to support the divorce agreement between Britain and the European Union in a December 11 vote.

The dense legalese paper states that the backstop "protocol", which would see the whole of the United Kingdom enter into a customs arrangement with the European Union, would come into effect in December 2020 "in the event that a subsequent agreement is not in place by then, and the protocol will continue to apply unless and until it is superseded, in whole in or part, by a subsequent agreement establishing alternative arrangements".

He said: "It is an uncomfortable position for both sides and the reality ... is that there is not a withdrawal agreement without a backstop".

Ministers have consistently argued that Mr Cox's advice is privileged in the same way as any given by a lawyer to a client, claiming that the Government will not be able function if it can not enjoy such confidentiality. "There is no unilateral right for either party to terminate this agreement", Mr Cox told the Commons to a shout of "it's a trap" from a Tory Brexiteer MP.

"The backstop will last indefinitely until it is superseded by the treaty setting out our future relationship, unless the European Union allows us to exit", he told The Sunday Times.

"Obviously, if that doesn't happen, we need to press on to other options such as a public vote because, having gone through the first two options, we would need to look at what happens then", Starmer said. Combined with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and opposition from the DUP - which is in a confidence-and-supply agreement with May's government - the bloc would likely be powerful enough to defeat the motion, and reports have suggested the government may even consider cancelling the vote entirely.

The DUP loathes the Withdrawal Agreement because under the backstop proposal for avoiding a hard Irish border, Northern Ireland would stick to parts of the single market, creating new border checks with rest of the UK.

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who quit last month over the Withdrawal Agreement, said the legal position was clear.

"I wouldn't say it's a probability, but it's a likelihood that's growing fast".

They noted that both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn voted Remain in the referendum, adding: "They are both wedded to slightly different models of staying in the customs union". And we can leave this ridiculous backstop when we decide, not when Europe decides.

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