QUENTIN LETTS: Lawyer MPs, their pinkies at an angle, request the government’s cache of legal advice documents as they jigged on a Brexit pin
Over in Brussels, Germany’s Angela Merkel was making an ein-Volk-eine-Armee speech. France was demanding that the EU become an ‘empire’.
Meanwhile, Downing Street finalised a stinky-sounding Brexit contract it must now put to the Cabinet, whose members were being hauled in to see Mrs Heath one by one.
A day of developments.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, face wan with fatigue, appealed for common sense. He estimated that ‘any legal advice’ would entail about 5,000 pieces of paper going back two years
And in the House of Commons? Petty games from Labour and a coven of lawyer MPs with pinkies at an angle as they jigged on a Brexit pin.
When Sir Francis Drake played bowls before the Armada he at least sucked down some Plymouth air. Yesterday our tribunes were just inhaling Westminster dust.
The Commons passed, without division, a Labour motion instructing HM the Queen to release ‘any legal advice in full’ that her Government had received on Brexit. Note that ‘any’.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington – face wan with fatigue – appealed for common sense. He estimated that ‘any legal advice’ would entail about 5,000 pieces of paper going back two years.
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Is the parliamentary photocopying budget going to be able to cope with this?
Mr Lidington half-heartedly hoped Labour would not press its demand. He joined his palms in a prayerful gesture and lifted them to his chin. He spoke emolliently but he was ignored. The moment the debate ended, he ambled out of the Chamber, alone.
Why was Labour demanding this unprecedented release of so much legal advice? Because Tory Eurosceptics and Democratic Unionists had been agitating to see the legal opinion given to Theresa May by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. They think Mrs May might lie about her Attorney-General’s advice, just as Tony Blair was suspected of doing before the Iraq war. A vicar’s daughter not tell the full truth?
Because Tory Eurosceptics and Democratic Unionists had been agitating to see the legal opinion given to Theresa May by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. They think Mrs May might lie about her Attorney-General’s advice, just as Tony Blair was suspected of doing before the Iraq war. A vicar’s daughter not tell the full truth?
Labour’s stance was driven by a desire to create friction between Mrs May and her fidgety troops. Not that Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit Secretary, admitted that. He claimed only high motives, saying it was all because Brexit was so important. MPs needed the full legal text in order to ensure that they voted from a position of the fullest information, etc. As opposed to just voting for sly careerist reasons, which is of course unimaginable.
Labour’s ruse was successful as far as it went. The motion passed unopposed because the Government Chief Whip, his right shirt collar askew, knew he had lost his majority.
Europhile Anna Soubry (Con, Broxtowe), staring wildly, raged that Eurosceptic Tory MPs seemed to be running the show. Ha! If only! Tory MPs who had served as law officers or government lawyers were horrified by the thought of legal advice being shown to the public. Sir Oliver Heald (NE Herts), Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) and Victoria Prentis (Banbury), although all Remainers, argued that such a rupture of client confidentiality was v. poor form.
It would make future legal advice less forthright. Lawyers might even stop putting opinions in print.
Veteran Brexiteer Sir William Cash (Con, Stone) wished Cabinet ministers had been given legal advice before being ambushed by Mrs May at Chequers.
Labour Remainer Hilary Benn (Leeds C) made an impenetrable, gabbled speech, at one point speaking of a Northern Irish ‘backschtop’.
There were echoes of his father in that furry pronunciation but Tony Benn would have never supported Brussels as his son does.
One thing I thought about lawyers – sorry, ‘eminent lawyers’, as they were described by minister Robert Buckland, himself a lawyer – was that the raw words on a document were what mattered.
But Sir Keir, the moment his motion passed, made a point of order insisting that he did not, after all, seek ‘any legal advice in full’. He was only keen to see the final advice given to Mrs May by Mr Cox. I think that’s called a lawyer trying to have it both ways.
Speaker Bercow told him that the motion’s wording could not be changed now that it had been passed. The Queen has been given her orders and her Government must now cough up 5,000 documents.
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