PM will only release legal advice in ‘exceptional circumstances, says Health Secretary

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Picture: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Picture: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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A senior Cabinet minister has insisted it is “not normal” for the government to publish full legal advice amid mounting pressure to release documents linked to Brexit.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the government’s chief legal adviser, could answer questions in the House of Commons, and added that a decision to release legal advice would be one made only in “exceptional circumstances” by the Prime Minister.

Eurosceptic Conservative backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested the information should “certainly be made available” to Cabinet ministers to ensure they know what they are signing up to.

But he added that he is more concerned over whether the deal is good or bad rather than about all MPs seeing such advice, while also expressing wider concerns about Cabinet being “bounced” into Brexit decisions.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government allies the DUP, and Brexiteer MPs, including Environment Secretary Michael Gove, are among those who want to see the full legal advice setting out how any customs arrangement to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic could be ended to avoid it becoming a permanent settlement.

A Commons vote on the documents could be forced when Parliament returns after its November mini-recess, which would pile further pressure on the Prime Minister, who travelled to Belgium yesterday to attend a working dinner with Nato leaders.

Elsewhere, European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will deliver speeches in Finland.

UK Cabinet ministers have been invited to review the text of the withdrawal agreement which has so far been secured in negotiations with Brussels.

Mrs May last month told MPs that 95 per cent of the deal had been agreed, although the key sticking point of the “backstop” to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remained unresolved.

After a marathon session on Tuesday, the Cabinet is on stand-by for fresh talks to agree a Brexit deal if there are further developments.

The PM’s plan would see the whole UK agree to remain in the customs union to help avoid a hard border with Ireland as a backstop if no other arrangement can be found.

The concerns focus on Mr Cox’s advice on how an exit from the backstop could be found to make sure the UK is not permanently kept within a customs union, which would severely curtail its ability to strike free trade deals with nations around the world – a key prize for Brexiteers.

Legal advice is usually confidential, and Mr Hancock said: “We’ve got a brilliant Attorney General, who sets out the legal position … he can answer questions in the Commons, but it’s not normal to publish the legal advice.”