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Labour Has Warned The Government It Must Publish Its Brexit Legal Advice In Full

Exclusive: Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has written to David Lidington warning any attempt to get out of releasing the full advice will be unacceptable to parliament.

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Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer
Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer

Labour’s Keir Starmer has written to the government demanding it publishes its legal advice on the Brexit deal in full, amid concerns Downing Street will attempt to release only a summary of the attorney general’s judgment on the withdrawal deal.

In a letter to Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington, seen by BuzzFeed News, the shadow Brexit secretary has warned that anything short of the full advice shown to cabinet ministers would fail to satisfy a binding motion passed by parliament earlier this month.

“Now an agreement between the UK and the EU has been struck, I’m writing to seek your urgent assurance that the Government will comply with the motion in full and within the next couple of days,” Starmer told Lidington.

“Labour and Parliament will accept nothing short of the full legal advice presented to Cabinet. A legal summary is clearly not sufficient and will not comply with the unanimous decision made by the House of Commons,” he wrote.

Keir Starmer's letter to David Lidington
Alex Wickham, BuzzFeed News

Keir Starmer's letter to David Lidington

On Nov. 13, Labour used a “humble address” — an arcane parliamentary motion — to force the government to agree to publish attorney general Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice in full.

After the government was defeated by Labour in the Commons, Starmer said ministers would have to release “the final advice provided by the attorney general to cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement”.

BuzzFeed News has previously reported that Cox delivered a “very stark” legal assessment of the deal to the cabinet.

Since then, multiple cabinet sources have told BuzzFeed News that Cox’s legal advice on the backstop was “damning”, and ultimately concluded that the exit mechanism to allow the UK to leave the backstop was “weak”.

But, the sources said, Cox’s political judgment was that a deal is better than no deal, and therefore ministers should swallow the backstop.

A Whitehall official who has seen the latest version of the Downing Street “grid” — its communications plan for the week ahead — said there was an entry titled “legal position”.

This led to suspicions among some officials that the government would attempt to publish only a summary of the legal advice, rather than the full advice demanded by parliament.

The Ministry of Justice appeared to confirm this on Tuesday. In response to a question in the House of Lords asking if the full advice made available to the cabinet would be published, MoJ spokesperson Lord Keen would only say that a “position statement” would be released.

The government would “make available to all members of Parliament a full, reasoned position statement, setting out the Government’s agreed legal position on the Agreement, including the Irish backstop proposals,” Keen said.

Almighty ding dong on Brexit legal advice ahead: Commons agreed on Nov 13 Govt should publish "final and full advice" provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. But a Govt minister has just said Parliament will get a "full, reasoned position statement". Not the same thing. https://t.co/unAx0aa1yL

The Labour whip's office said: "Parliament was clear on this, when it unanimously passed a Labour humble address forcing the Government to publish the full legal advice from the Attorney General to Cabinet. Labour and Parliament will accept nothing short of the full legal advice to Cabinet."

Downing Street has been contacted for comment.

Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Alex Wickham at alex.wickham@buzzfeed.com.

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