Government must publish Brexit legal advice

Larry Hoffman
December 5, 2018

While ministers could refuse to accede to a motion of this kind, doing so would precipitate a full-blown constitutional crisis of which this week's row over publishing legal advice is just a foretaste.

At times, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox looked overwhelmed with emotion as he listened to colleagues giving character references that might spring him from the contempt charge.

The unprecedented defeat was compounded when the government lost another key vote on the power MPs would have if May's Brexit deal is voted down next Tuesday.

The defeat means the government will now have to publish the legal advice given to Cabinet ministers on the Brexit deal - despite insisting it would not be in the national interest to do so.

The UK government has been found in contempt of parliament for the first time in its history over its failure to publish legal advice on Brexit in full.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today that the meaningful vote on the Brexit deal was "the single biggest decision the country will have taken in 50 years" and the Government's decision "impedes the house in the performance of its function".

Defeat would leave the United Kingdom facing a messy, economically damaging "no-deal" Brexit on March 29 and could topple the prime minister, her government, or both.

The formal advice from a European Court of Justice advocate general - not binding but usually heeded by the court - suggested to some lawmakers that revoking the "Article 50" divorce notice was an option.

The British government argues that this is the best deal the United Kingdom will get, and it warned lawmakers that voting against it would lead to a disorderly Brexit.

Politicians on both sides of Britain's European Union membership debate oppose the agreement that May struck with the bloc - pro-Brexit ones because it keeps Britain bound closely to the European Union, and pro-EU politicians because it erects barriers between the United Kingdom and its biggest trading partner.

Chris Leslie, the Labour backbencher backing the amendment, said: "MPs are going to gradually assert their rights - including the right to instruct the government in future stages".

The British leader kickstarted five days of parliamentary debate on her proposed withdrawal agreement with a statement to parliament on Tuesday. "That is the nature of a negotiation", she said.

A small number of Labour rebels could support her, but the party's official position is to vote against the deal. Backers of the Norway-style approach have similar plans to hang back for now and step forward with an enticing amendment later in the process. He added: "Theresa May's majority has evaporated, and the credibility of her deal is evaporating with it".

May's Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party, which prop up her minority government, went further.

This ultimately would have helped stop the immediate publication of the full legal advice on the Brexit deal - something which opposition MPs have demanded.

As she sought the backing of the Commons for her Brexit deal, the prime minister said the United Kingdom would enjoy a "better future" outside the European Union.

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