Brexit: Theresa May government found in contempt of Parliament over legal advice

In a major climb down for Theresa May and a victory for the Opposition, the British government is set to publish the full and final legal advice given to it on the withdrawal deal agreed with EU nations, after a cross-party coalition of MPs won a motion finding the government in contempt of Parliament.

Following a lengthy debate on December 4 afternoon, during which the government introduced an amendment attempting to thwart the contempt motion, MPs voted for the disclosure by 311 to 293 votes, with Labour, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and some MPs from the Conservatives, as well as their former allies the Democratic Unionists of Norther Ireland, coming together in an extraordinary and unprecedented show of political unity.

It is the first time ever that a British government has been found in contempt of Parliament in such a way and was one of three significant votes lost by the government on December 4 afternoon.

The third amendment lost by the government was tabled by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve that sought to give Parliament a greater say should the government be defeated in the forthcoming vote on the Brexit deal on December 11. The amendment enables MPs to change any proposals brought back to Parliament after this, greatly strengthening the hand of Parliament, and making it harder for the government to suggest that if Parliament did not pass their deal Britain would crash out of the EU.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the U.K.’s Parliamentary Recording Unit shows MPs as the outcome of a vote on a motion to find Ministers in contempt of Parliament is passed, in the House of Commons in London on December 4, 2018.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the U.K.’s Parliamentary Recording Unit shows MPs as the outcome of a vote on a motion to find Ministers in contempt of Parliament is passed, in the House of Commons in London on December 4, 2018.  
| Photo Credit: AFP

On December 3, the government had published a summary of the legal advice, ignoring a parliamentary vote that had required them to publish it in its full and final version. The motion was a “last resort,” after the government “wilfully” refused to comply with Parliament, said Labour’s spokesperson on Brexit issues Keir Starmer, during the debate on Tuesday. “That is contempt of Parliament,” he said, adding that it had huge “constitutional and political significance.”

Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom rejected the accusation, insisting the Attorney-General — who appeared in the House of Commons to present his summary of advice — had treated Parliament with the “greatest respect”. Following the vote, she said the government would publish the advice because of the “expressed will” of the House. Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, in heated exchanges in the House had insisted that keeping government advice confidential was in the national interest.

The climbdown by the government on the legal advice is particularly significant. It highlights the breakdown of trust and relations within the Conservative Party and between the government and the DUP, as well as the willingness of MPs from both parties to vote against the December 11 vote.

The content of the advice could worsen things further for the government should off-the-record briefings provided to sections of the British press over the weekend prove to be accurate. 

A combination of video grabs from footage broadcast by the U.K. Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit shows Britain’s Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox listening to the debate (top left) on a contempt motion over the publication of legal advice and reacting (top right, bottom left and bottom right) as the outcome of a vote on a motion to find Ministers in contempt of Parliament is passed, and ordering Britain’s government to publish the full legal advice on the Brexit deal, in the House of Commons in London on December 4, 2018.

A combination of video grabs from footage broadcast by the U.K. Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit shows Britain’s Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox listening to the debate (top left) on a contempt motion over the publication of legal advice and reacting (top right, bottom left and bottom right) as the outcome of a vote on a motion to find Ministers in contempt of Parliament is passed, and ordering Britain’s government to publish the full legal advice on the Brexit deal, in the House of Commons in London on December 4, 2018.  
| Photo Credit: AFP

The Sunday Times had reported Cabinet sources as saying the legal advice included a warning that Britain could be ‘indefinitely” stuck in an EU customs union if the backstop arrangements to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland kicked in. This would confirm the worst fears of opponents — including “hard” Brexiteers who are adamant that Britain must be able to take back control unilaterally and from the outset. It could further unify the opposition to her deal, raising the prospect of Britain either crashing out of the EU without a deal or triggering a new referendum or a new election.

Speaking in the House of Commons at the start of the five-day debate ahead of the December 11 vote, Ms. May insisted that in 2016 the public had withdrawn their consent to membership of the union, and that a second referendum wouldn’t bring the country together. “What would it say to the 52% who voted to leave if their decision were ignored? What would it do to our politics,” she asked. She has also rejected suggestions that the government could go back to the EU and renegotiate the deal.

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