Theresa May in battle over Brexit as charm offensive begins
Labour to begin contempt of parliament proceedings if advice on deal not published
Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, in Buenos Aires on Saturday. Mrs May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are yet to agree the format for a mooted TV debate between the pair next Sunday. Photograph: AP Photo
Theresa May faces her first major battle in a crucial period for her Brexit plans, with the government at risk of being declared in contempt of parliament in a row over the publication of official legal advice on the departure deal. The prime minister, back in London from the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, will simultaneously begin a charm offensive to win over Tory MPs in dozens of face-to-face meetings before the Commons votes on the deal on December 11th. On Monday afternoon the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, is scheduled to brief the Commons about his advice on the Brexit plan before – in an unusual move for the government’s chief law officer – answering questions from MPs.
Downing Street argues strongly that this will be sufficient information for any MP to make up their mind on the legal aspects of the deal before the upcoming five-day debate, and that it keeps to the protocol that full advice is seen as confidential between lawyer and client. But Labour, which last month won a vote on a Commons motion obliging the release of the full advice, is to join forces with other parties, including the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), to try to pressure ministers to accede to their publication demand, using the ominous if vague threat of a contempt of parliament motion.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said he believed ministers would be in “really deep water” if they sought to thwart the Commons. “If they don’t produce it tomorrow then we will start contempt proceedings, and this will be a collision course between the government and parliament,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge show. “I accept that it’s exceptional to have that disclosed. It has happened in the past, but it is exceptional. That’s why we had a debate in parliament – to say: is this the sort of case where it’s so exceptional that it should be disclosed?”
It is expected that Labour will see how much detail is contained in the “legal position paper” – a precis of the advice given by Cox to cabinet – published on Monday, and in the attorney general’s answers to MPs before deciding on a contempt motion. In theory, a minister found to be in contempt of parliament could be suspended or even expelled from the Commons, though such sanctions are seen as extremely unlikely. Any motion would be cross-party, with the DUP, May’s unofficial coalition partners, expected to join Labour’s efforts along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. A key issue for May is whether dissent spreads to more moderate MPs. One centrist Tory said: “There is good reason for advice to stay confidential. The issue here is trust. Given Brexit divisions, can this hold? Possibly not.”
Downing Street is publicly confident that the arrangement for Cox to answer questions should be enough to reassure even the most suspicious or curious MPs. “He will be there to answer any question any MP wants to put to him, so there is going to be full scrutiny. It’s important to note that we are making him available,” a No 10 source said. On Sunday the environment secretary, Michael Gove, conceded that he shared the worry of many Tories about the UK being unable to exit the backstop without the say-so of the EU.
“I would have preferred it if we had a unilateral right of exit,” Gove told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show. But Gove argued EU leaders would oppose the idea of the UK being kept indefinitely in the arrangement, as this would “see Britain having a competitive advantage over their country”. The government believes a unilateral exit mechanism for the backstop would be impossible to negotiate – not least because the EU would be concerned about what might then happen if May was replaced by another prime minister.
In another Brexit wrangle, May and Jeremy Corbyn are yet to agree the format for a mooted TV debate between the pair next Sunday. The Labour leader said he was happy to hold a head-to-head encounter on the BBC. – Guardian service