After an unprecedented rebuke from parliament, the British government was forced to publish the closely-guarded legal assessment of its Brexit deal with Brussels on Wednesday, a move that triggered searing criticism from politicians around Westminster.
Officials said Theresa May was preparing to introduce new concessions in the face of political fears over a so-called backstop arrangement in the deal, which would lock the UK into a customs union with the EU until a means of keeping the Irish border open was found.
In the full legal advice the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, warned a proposed temporary backstop deal with the European Union to avoid a hard Irish border could continue “indefinitely.” This led opposition parties to accuse the prime minister’s team of being in a “crisis” and “misleading the house inadvertently or otherwise.”
Mrs May faces a key deadline of December 11th to secure backing of the House of Commons for the compromise struck with Brussels last month.
Mr Cox said the arrangement, which would ‘temporarily’ allow the entire UK to retain friction-less trade, could be unbreakable if the EU and UK was unable to agree a permanent agreement over the Irish border.
“Despite statements… that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part,” Mr Cox wrote in a letter to Mrs May in mid-November.
“Further, the Withdrawal Agreement cannot provide a legal means of compelling the EU to conclude such an agreement. In the absence of a right of termination, there is a legal risk that the UK might become subject to protracted and repeated rounds of negotiations,” he added.
The full legal advice was only published after legislators found the government in contempt of parliament. It was one of three embarrassing defeats for the government in parliament on Tuesday, the first of five days dedicated to debating the final terms of Brexit. The Attorney General recounted an initial overview earlier this week but refused to outline the full advice citing national interest.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, said such claims were “nothing of the sort. All this advice reveals is the central weaknesses in the government’s deal.”
Mr Starmer, the former director of UK public prosecutions, said it was “unthinkable that the government tried to keep” the information *rivate before a final vote next week. Mrs May denied the charge.
Despite this, loyalists of Mrs May rallied behind the prime minister in a day initially dedicated to security. Home secretary Sajid Javid conceded the EU deal was not perfect, but provided a solid foundation for future cooperation and ensured a “smooth transition.” He said the “comprehensive agreement” was the best the EU held with any third country.
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader, did not use the chance to ramp up the Brexit pressure on Mrs May further, choosing instead to directly question her on topics such as universal credit at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions.
Late on Wednesday the Scottish parliament voted against the UK's Brexit proposal. Overall, 92 voted to support a motion to reject the deal with 29 against.