UK government releases Brexit legal advice after contempt vote

Brexit legal advice
© iStock/Thomas Faull

The UK government has published the full text of their Brexit legal advice after being found in contempt of parliament yesterday.

On Monday representatives of six opposition parties presented a motion to John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, calling for the government to be held in contempt of parliament for failing to provide the full text of its Brexit legal advice. Instead attorney general Geoffrey Cox published a summary of the advice and answered some questions in the House of Commons, but it was alleged this was not within the remit of Parliament’s determination in November that the advice must be published in full.

The House of Commons voted yesterday to hold the government in contempt – the first time in history a contempt motion against a sitting government has passed – and compel it to publish the full Brexit legal advice. In the same parliamentary session the government suffered defeats in two other key votes: their bid to have the legal advice issue dealt with separately by the Privileges Committee; and the “Grieve amendment”, which was approved by parliament and will allow MPs a meaningful vote on the Brexit process.

The full text of the Brexit legal advice, made public earlier today, confirms suspicion that the customs union “backstop” detailed in Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement could remain in place indefinitely unless rescinded by the EU.

A statement from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which was until recently part of a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives to enable Prime Minister Theresa May to command a majority in the House of Commons, said of the Brexit legal advice: “The implication, as outlined by the attorney general, of NI [Northern Ireland] remaining in the EU single market for goods while GB [mainland Great Britain] does not is that for regulatory purposes GB is ‘essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB into NI’. This is totally unacceptable and economically mad in that it will be erecting internal economic and trade barriers within the United Kingdom.”

Parliament is meeting every day this week to debate the various aspects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU; and has committed to at least eight hours’ debate per day, culminating in a final vote on May’s withdrawal bill on December 11. The European Court of Justice’s Advocate General delivered his opinion yesterday that parliament should be able to revoke Article 50 without permission of the UK government. The Advocate General’s Brexit legal advice is not a final ruling, nor is it legally binding; but it is likely to act as an indicator of the court’s final ruling, which will be delivered at a later date.

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