Kevin Maguire: Theresa May is looking as shifty as Tony Blair once did
Pressure is mounting on the PM to release the full legal advice given to her over the Irish backstop.
Labour is right to increasingly emphasise parallels between Brexit and the Iraq War as the party intensifies pressure on the Prime Minister to release the Government's full legal advice on options when the United Kingdom quits the European Union.
Shami Chakrabarti argues powerfully that secrecy mustn't be used again as an official cloak to hide potentially disastrous, seismic choices. “Legal confidentiality is a shield for citizens, not for unaccountable decision making in secret,” the Shadow Attorney-General and former director of human rights group Liberty told me. “Iraq taught us that legal advice is better interrogated in the light of day; better still before world-changing decisions are made in our name.”
The Shadow Attorney-General's comparison with Iraq comes after Theresa May was one of those criticising Tony Blair's Government for concealing legal advice to bounce a Labour Cabinet into backing the cataclysmic US-UK invasion. It leaves the PM looking shifty, on weak ground with something to hide.
Labour is currently in a struggle to take back control of Brexit alongside Liberal Democrat, SNP, DUP and Tory Brextremist MPs. All are asserting the Attorney-General's assessment of a fundamental constitutional issue should be considered by a sovereign Parliament rather than a small cabal. This could yet see Jeremy Crobyn repeat the smart Commons “humble address” procedure which obtained Brexit impact assessments showing every exit alternative is economically expensive never mind the political fallout.
Brexiteer Environment Secretary Michael Gove asking the PM if he could read the full advice after Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox's summary to the Cabinet last week is evidence of unease inside the Government tent as well as outside.
Cox claimed correctly the UK insisting on a unilateral right to scrap a Northern Ireland backstop, a power opposed by the other 27 countries including the Republic of Ireland, reduced the likelihood of a deal. Yet MPs and not just Ministers would be falling down on the job if they meekly fell into line rather than demanding to know the implications of May's cunning plan.
May's backfiring “backstop to the backstop” letter to Arlene Foster, leader of a DUP which we should never forget doesn't represent majority opinion in a Northern Ireland which voted to stay in Europe and against Brexit, chips away at the Premier's secrecy defence.
Battle lines on the legal question are admittedly slightly blurred, however, with Anna Soubry, a Tory MP and barrister arguing Britain's best deal with Europe is remaining in the EU, is against publication.
The echo of Iraq is a loud warning when Blair's withholding of the full reasoning suppressed discussion of the Attorney-General Peter Goldsmith's dramatic change of mind, the peer denying political lobbying was why he U-turned to sanction March 2003 military action proven to be catastrophically disastrous.
Lord Goldsmith subsequently insisted his initial belief a specific UN resolution was required for the war to be legal changed after a visit to Washington shortly before war started, the peer deciding it was after all authorised by existing UN agreements dating back to 1991.
The Chilcot inquiry didn't secure publication of the full declassified Iraq legal advice until 2010. Many MPs argue the Cabinet Office justification that was “very exceptional” circumstances apply equally to Britain's momentous departure from Europe, a move more significant than even the Iraq bloodbath despite the lack of guns and bombs and hopefully dead bodies.
Legal opinions on Iraq and Brexit won't be the only historical parallel if May relies on Labour rebels for the House of Commons to pass whatever she proposes to take the UK out of the EU.
Ted Heath, the Tory PM who took Britain into Europe, required the votes in October 1971 of 69 Labour rebels - including future party leader John Smith and SDP splitters Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – to secure entry into the then European Economic Community.
Labour whips calculate at the mo she'd secure no more than a dozen for a customs union face saver.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor of the Daily Mirror.