By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May's government fought on Monday to defend its Brexit deal by outlining the legal basis for parliament to support its agreement to leave the European Union, but instead seemed to fan the flames of rebellion.
May faces an uphill struggle to secure parliament's approval in a vote on Dec. 11, when many Brexit supporters and opponents alike say they will reject her vision for leaving the EU, Britain's biggest shift in foreign policy in over 40 years.
She has toured the country and television studios to try to sell her deal, but a move to present her government's legal advice to parliament seemed to backfire on Monday.
With several lawmakers doubling down on their criticism of the deal, the opposition Labour Party also said that it and other parties had written to parliament's speaker asking him to consider launching contempt proceedings against May's government for failing to release the full legal advice.
It was a threat that one government source shrugged off as just a "process row".
At a rowdy session of parliament, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox outlined the legal advice he had given to the government, including over a "backstop" arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland if a future UK-EU trading deal is not reached in time.
"This deal … is the best way I firmly believe of ensuring that we leave the European Union on March 29," Cox told parliament. "This is the deal that will ensure that happening in an orderly way with legal certainty."
But his words did little to soothe some of the deal's most caustic critics in parliament, where many Brexit supporters said the so-called backstop for Northern Ireland risked tying Britain into the EU's customs union indefinitely.
"The legal summary document is worse than we feared: the backstop customs union is indefinite, the UK would be a rule taker and the European Court (of Justice) is in charge of our destiny, rather than the sovereign UK parliament," former Brexit minister David Davis said. "This is not Brexit."
May's Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party, which prop up her minority government, went further.
Deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds said: "The overall context of this is … a deeply unattractive, unsatisfactory presentation and he (Cox) needs to therefore rather than recommend this agreement, recommend that it is rejected."
Many lawmakers were also angry over not being shown just a summary, not the full legal advice on May's Brexit deal which her government had seen.
The Labour Party and other lawmakers, including the DUP, say that the vote is so important for the future of the country that lawmakers should be able to see any detailed legal warnings concerning parts of the withdrawal agreement.
"The government has failed to publish the attorney general's full and final legal advice to the Cabinet, as ordered by parliament," Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said.
"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."
The proceedings against the government for contempt of parliament could potentially result in one or more ministers being suspended or expelled from the House of Commons.
The government, in line with usual practice, has resisted publishing its full legal advice on grounds of confidentiality.
But Monday's opposition did not bode well for the Dec. 11 vote, which will come at the end of five days of bruising debate starting on Tuesday.
If she loses, May could call for a second vote. But defeat would increase the chances of Britain leaving without a deal – a possibility that could mean chaos for Britain's economy and businesses – and put May under fierce pressure to resign.
Defeat could also make it more likely that Britain holds a second EU referendum, three years after voting narrowly to leave the bloc.