By Paul Waugh
Labour is set to team up with rebel Tory MPs to force Theresa May to prove any ‘guarantees’ to improve her Brexit deal are legally binding, HuffPost UK has learned.
The fresh cross-party ambush aims to compel the government to publish any updated secret legal advice from the Attorney General on the PM’s plans.
Ahead of the crunch Commons vote on her deal next Tuesday, May believes she can win her party and the DUP round with political and legal ‘assurances’ that the UK will not be indefinitely tied to Brussels rules after it quits the EU.
In a last-ditch bid to avoid defeat, new written guarantees are expected in an exchange of letters with the EU27 in coming days.
But Labour, DUP and Tory backbenchers are keen to ensure that May backs up any claims about improvements to her deal with concrete evidence that any ‘clarifications’ have legal force.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will front the government’s case on the start of the final day of debate in the Commons next week, with the PM closing proceedings before the vote.
The move is seen as a deliberate attempt to use Cox’s legal clout and Brexit credentials to convince Conservative rebels that May’s deal is the best available.
Yet many fear they will be ‘bounced’ by a last-minute publication of the letter from Brussels. No.10 said on Tuesday that any new assurances would be made available to MPs “before the vote”, but was unclear on the exact timing.
May told Cabinet ministers last month that she had pulled the Commons vote on her deal in order to gain a “legally binding assurance” from the EU that the so-called Northern Irish ‘backstop’ plan was not permanent.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday that the EU was ready to provide new “written guarantees, explanations and assurances” to help May secure Parliamentary support.
However, DUP and Tory MPs fear such language falls short of legal commitments needed, and Labour is determined to follow up on its historic cross-party victory last year that forced the publication of legal advice on Brexit.
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer told HuffPost UK: “Last year, the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to publish the legal advice on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. We should not have go through that process all over again.
“Parliament must be kept informed of the full legal implications of any deal the Prime Minister strikes with the EU.”
Senior former ministers including Priti Patel, Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Baker are also understood to be keen on getting any fresh legal advice published to expose the reality of the EU promises.
May’s fragile majority was exposed again on Tuesday night when the Commons defeated the government by seven votes over tax plans under a no-deal Brexit.
Labour is now looking at a fresh Parliamentary device, possibly an amendment to the ‘meaningful vote’ or a fresh contempt motion, to ensure that any changes in Cox’s advice are made public to MPs.
And the backbench Brexiteers’ European Research Group (ERG) is also determined to avoid MPs being ‘hoodwinked’ by claims about the legal force of the new clarifications of the withdrawal agreement.
One Brexiteer said: “We’re very conscious of how the numbers stack up in the lobbies. It’s time No.10 was too. Putting fingers in ears and whistling isn’t working.”
A Labour source added: “Either there is no new legal advice, in which case the PM has failed to come up with the legal assurances she promised. Or there is new legal advice and they are hiding it.”
MPs in all parties will demand that any No.10 claims that the EU clarifications are legally meaningful are backed up with proof that legal advice has been given.
Tory backbencher Ann Main said it was important that the Attorney General should be in the Commons to be challenged on “how legally binding some of the agreements will be”.
“Those of us who are sceptical about having agreements rather than things written in law would like to have some of the legal advice we have already explored explained to us in the House,” she said.
Cox was furious last year when he was personally forced to appear before MPs to explain his full legal advice, having been assured by some close to May that publication was unlikely.
Labour’s Clive Betts said this week that if there was to be any change to the deal itself, or to the agreed explanatory wording, the government would run the risk of once again being held in contempt if they withheld any changes in the Attorney General’s advice.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay replied: “Any possibility of our being found in such contempt will be taken extremely seriously, and the government would look at that and respond accordingly.”
Jeremy Corbyn declared on Tuesday that May has failed to secure any meaningful change, after the government’s procedural ‘business motion’ for the Brexit debate simply extended a previous timetable.