Theresa May is facing huge pressure to publish secret legal advice on her Brexit plans after Labour joined the DUP and Tory Eurosceptics to demand full transparency.
Drafted by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the advice assesses a range of options for a so-called ‘backstop’ guarantee to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland after the UK quits the EU next March.
Cox gave cabinet ministers a summary of his advice on Tuesday, but some including Michael Gove want the PM release the full documents rather than just relying on a precis of their contents.
The issue of Northern Ireland is seen as key to ending the roadblock in talks with Brussels, and Cox warned his colleagues that any move to unilaterally pull out of the ‘backstop’ would increase the risk of a no-deal outcome.
But Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have now called for publication of the legal advice so MPs can make a fully informed decision when they vote on the deal later this year.
Crucially, Labour is furious at the suggestion that ministers have promised to share privately the legal notes with the DUP, whose 10 MPs give the government its narrow majority in Parliament.
One option is for Labour to table a ‘Humble Address’ in the Commons, forcing the publication if ministers refuse to do so.
Speaking in Brussels, Starmer said: “Any agreement on the backstop can’t simply be a fudge that’s cobbled together to satisfy Theresa May’s cabinet. It must be a robust and credible proposal that guarantees there will be no return to a hard border in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
“That’s why it’s essential MPs are given the opportunity to scrutinise the Attorney General’s legal advice before voting on the final deal. The public have the right to know precisely what the cabinet has signed up to and what the implications are for the future.
“At this crucial stage, Parliament should not be kept in the dark, nor should the government try to bounce MPs into an agreement without all the facts.”
A key figure in the powerful Tory backbench Brexiteers’ European Research Group told HuffPost UK that there was no a real chance of the PM’s hand being forced thanks to Labour, Tory and DUP pressure.
“The confluence of three great streams makes a mighty river debouching upon the sea of legal clarity, as the Attorney General might put it,” the source said.
No.10 has consistently refused calls to publicise the legal advice, relying on years of convention. Under Tony Blair, his Attorney General refused to publish his full advice on the legality of the Iraq War.
DUP chief whip Jeffrey 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.
“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 also 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’.”