Theresa May has been accused of “concealing” the downsides of her Brexit deal after secret legal advice revealed that the UK could be “indefinitely” tied to the EU.
The DUP, SNP and Tory Brexiteers reacted with fury as the confidential advice by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox laid bare that the country would be trapped in a possible customs union for “many years”.
In a major blow to the prime minister’s hopes of winning round the DUP, the six-page document also confirmed that Northern Ireland would be treated differently from Great Britain.
SNP leader Ian Blackford used prime minister’s questions in the Commons to accuse May to her face of “misleading the House, inadvertently or otherwise” about her Brexit deal. May hit back: “We have not concealed the facts.”
Under Parliamentary convention, no MP can accuse another member of lying, so Blackford was forced by the Commons Speaker to withdraw his remark.
Following an historic vote by the Commons on Tuesday night, the attorney general’s advice to the cabinet was finally published on Wednesday, setting out his view of how international law would apply to the UK-EU deal.
In one key passage, Cox advised that the so-called “backstop” plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would be legally permanent unless replaced by another permanent proposal.
Despite assurances from both London and Brussels that the proposal is intended to be temporary, it would “endure indefinitely” under international law until another agreement takes its place, Cox said.
Another key section states: “In conclusion, the current drafting of the Protocol…does not provide for a mechanism that is likely to enable the UK lawfully to exit the UK wide customs union without subsequent agreement.
“This remains the case even if parties are still negotiating many years later, and even if the parties believe that that talks have clearly broken down and there is no prospect of a future relationship agreement. The resolution of such a stalemate would have to be political.”
A further passage makes clear that without a unilateral ‘exit’ mechanism, “there is a legal risk that the United Kingdom might become subject to protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations”.
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds made plain his own anger at the legal advice.
Dodds said the new revelations were “devastating for the Prime Minister”.
“We have no choice but to vote this down. The Prime Minister must know this is heading for defeat yet she persists in rushing towards a brick wall,” he said.
The fresh rupture in relations between the DUP and the Tories, who rely on the Northern Ireland party to keep them in power, came as May prepared a fresh bid to keep her critics on board.
It emerged that No.10 is working on a fresh amendment that would give the UK parliament a new “lock” on the Northern Ireland backstop, meaning if cannot be entered into without MPs’ backing.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that the 33-paragraph memo revealed “the central weaknesses in the government’s deal”.
“Having reviewed the attorney general’s legal advice, it’s obvious why this needed to be placed in the public domain.
“It is unthinkable that the government tried to keep this information from parliament – and indeed the public – before next week’s vote.”
Stamer added that it “beggared belief” that May had wanted MPs to vote next Tuesday without having seen the full legal advice.
Labour is committed to demanding a general election if May’s plan is defeated. Starmer told Sky News that if she lost the vote, “confidence in her would have to be tested sooner rather than later”.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was one of the first to reveal the full advice after its publication, said it contradicted Cox’s claim earlier this week that the advice should not be published “in the national interest”.
HuffPost UK understands that Cox was so upset at the fact that MPs had found him guilty of ‘contempt of Parliament’ that he has been considering his resignation from the Cabinet “as a matter of honour”.