The government’s top law officer angered Conservative Brexiteers and opposition MPs from all parties as he presented the government’s legal position on the Irish border backstop, admitting the UK could be kept under EU trading rules indefinitely with possibility to leave unilaterally.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox could face possible suspension from the House of Commons if the Speaker finds him in contempt of parliament, after opposition parties claimed he had failed to produce the full legal advice demanded by MPs.
Tory Brexiteers shouted “it’s a trap” as Mr Cox set out the government’s legal stance on the backstop, which will act as an insurance policy preventing a hard border in Ireland if there is no trade deal agreed between the UK and EU by the end of the transition period.
The Attorney General admitted that the UK would be “indefinitely committed” to the backstop if it was activated, and told MPs there was “no unilateral right for either party to terminate”.
Mr Cox told MPs that the Prime Minister’s deal was a “calculated risk” but insisted: “I do not believe we will be trapped in it permanently”.
However, when asked by SNP MP Joanna Cherry whether there is anything in international law to prevent the backstop becoming permanent, Mr Cox replied: “As a matter of international law, no.”
Appealing to dozens of his Conservative colleagues set to vote against the deal, Mr Cox said: “I make no bones about it - I would have preferred to have seen a unilateral right of termination in this backstop.”
He added: “I’m prepared to lend my support to this agreement because I do not believe that we’re likely to be entrapped in it permanently.”
Earlier, the UK Government published its 43-page Legal Position On The Withdrawal Agreement that confirmed the Irish backstop would continue to apply “unless and until it is superseded” by a subsequent agreement.
It also says the UK faces making additional payments to Brussels if the Brexit implementation period is extended.
Opposition parties including Theresa May’s DUP allies said the document and the Attorney General’s statement failed to meet the terms of a vote demanding publication of the full legal advice and asked Speaker John Bercow to launch contempt of Parliament proceedings.
In the Commons chamber, Mr Cox told MPs to stop “braying” for the full legal advice be published, and said: “There is nothing to see here!”
“It is time they grew up and got real,” the Attorney General added. “The public interest is at stake, what part of that proposition is the opposition not capable of understanding.”
Last night a letter to the Speaker was signed by shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds and senior MPs from the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Green Party
If Mr Bercow agrees to launch contempt proceedings, a debate in the Commons could follow with the possibility of MPs voting on whether to suspend the Attorney General from parliament.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Government has failed to publish the Attorney General’s full and final legal advice to the Cabinet, as ordered by Parliament.
“We have therefore been left with no option but to write to the Speaker of the House of Commons to ask him to launch proceedings of contempt.”
Ms Cherry, a qualified QC, added: “The binding motion passed by this House on 13 November ordered the production of any legal advice in full, including that provided by the Attorney General. What he has produced is a legal commentary not legal advice.
“The Attorney General said that he wished he could comply with the order of the House but he cannot. A theatrical lawyer might say it looks like an open and shut case of contempt.”