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UK PM May's political turmoil over Brexit builds up

PTI london India
Updated: 05-12-2018 22:35 IST

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday sought to quell rising political turmoil over Brexit as the government was forced to publish the complete legal advice around the Withdrawal Agreement she has secured with the European Union (EU).

A day after she faced a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons as MPs voted to hold her government in contempt over a refusal to publish the document, May laid out the six-page document in the public domain attracting allegations of "inadvertently misleading" Parliament by some MPs.

"I recognise there are concerns about the backstop but it is indeed the case that it is not attractive for the European Union to have the United Kingdom in the backstop for a number of reasons,” said May during her weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) session in the Commons.

"First of all because in that backstop we will be making no financial obligation to the European Union; we will not be accepting free movement; and there will be very light-touch level-playing field requirements," she said.

The legal advice document prepared by UK attorney-general Geoffrey Cox, at the heart of the rare contempt motion against the government in Parliament earlier this week, warns the terms of the Irish backstop could trap the UK in "protracted and repeated rounds of negotiations" with the EU in the years ahead.

It seems to confirm the fears of opponents of May's deal that the backstop would tie Britain indefinitely to EU rules, despite leaving the 28-member economic bloc.

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary who had tabled the demand for its publication, said having reviewed the legal advice it was "obvious why this needed to be placed in the public domain".

"All week we have heard from government ministers that releasing this information could harm the national interest. Nothing of the sort. All this advice reveals is the central weaknesses in the government's deal," Starmer said.

"It is unthinkable that the government tried to keep this information from Parliament – and indeed the public – before next week's vote," he said, making a reference to the crucial vote on the Brexit deal set for next Tuesday.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which provides May's Conservative Party government with a crucial Parliament majority with its 10 MPs, also voiced its anger, saying it was apparent why the government had tried to "hide" the legal position.

"It is clear from the Attorney General's advice on the legal effect of the protocol on Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues that we were right to advocate its full publication and we have been vindicated in our opposition to the backstop arrangements contained within the Withdrawal Agreement," said Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader in the Commons.

Meanwhile, British MPs entered the second day of a five-day marathon debate over the agreement signed with the EU, which needs to be ratified by Parliament with a majority for it to go through to the next stage in time for Britain's formal exit from the EU on March 29, 2019. However, intense opposition to the deal from all sides of the House has made its passage next week extremely precarious.

May received some much-needed vocal backing from one of her Cabinet ministers, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who opened the debate in the Commons on Wednesday.

"It is my belief that the deal on the table is the best option available in ensuring a smooth exit from the European Union," he said.

"It will ensure we leave the EU as planned on March 29 next year, that we take back control of our borders, end the jurisdiction of the ECJ (European Court of Justice) in the UK, and we stop sending vast sums of money to Brussels," the minister noted.

Another fellow Cabinet minister, international trade secretary Liam Fox, also backed the deal, warning there was a "natural 'Remain' majority" in Parliament and any attempt to overturn the 2016 referendum vote in favour of Brexit would be a "democratic affront".

As the parliamentary debate plays out over the next few days, there are numerous scenarios being thrown up if the premier is unable to get support for her deal in the crucial December 11 vote. One possibility is that she will have to go back to Brussels to try and secure a more palatable proposition, something the EU has repeatedly dismissed as unlikely.

It then opens up the field to a no-deal chaotic Brexit without any exit arrangements in place, a scenario which also has few takers in the UK Parliament and is expected to further dent May's already tenuous hold on leadership.

The calls for a so-called "People's Vote" or second referendum, over the issue have been growing among a number of Opposition parties and anti-Brexiteers. However, the Labour Party is keen to push for a general election, something that could prove an uphill task given the UK's Fixed Term Parliaments Act setting out a five-year period between elections.

In a sign of the ever-growing divisions over Brexit, the BBC announced that it has abandoned plans for a proposed televised debate between May and Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sunday after both sides failed to agree on a format.

"We believe ours was a fair and appropriate format for those taking part and, crucially, for our audiences around the country, and it is a shame we will not be able to bring them this programme," the BBC said in a statement.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)