MPs find Government in contempt of Parliament in historic vote

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Theresa May’s Government is to release its legal advice on the Brexit deal on Wednesday, after being found in contempt of Parliament over its refusal to publish it in full.

In dramatic scenes at Westminster, the Prime Minister’s Democratic Unionist Party allies joined Labour and other opposition parties to inflict defeat on the Government by 311 votes to 293.

Minutes after the historic contempt vote, the Government went down to its third defeat in the space of an hour as MPs backed a move which could put Parliament in the driving seat if the Brexit deal is rejected on December 11.

If her deal falls in the “meaningful vote” next week, the PM has 21 calendar days to set out a statement on her next steps.

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve’s amendment will make any such statement itself amendable, meaning that MPs can effectively direct the Government on how to respond to the defeat of Mrs May’s plans.

The House of Commons found the Government in contempt by a margin of 311 to 293 (

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that the finding of contempt was “a badge of shame” for the Government, with “huge constitutional and political significance”.

It is the first time in modern history that a Government has been found in contempt of Parliament.

“It is highly regrettable that the Government has let it come to this, but ministers left the opposition with no option but to bring forward these proceedings,” said Sir Keir.

“By treating Parliament with contempt, the Government has proved it has lost its majority and the respect of the House.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: what could happen
(PA Graphics)

Only hours before the vote, Mrs May had told Cabinet that “candid” legal advice given to ministers must remain confidential, despite a Commons vote last month demanding its publication in “final and full” form.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox insisted the Government had “gone out of its way” to satisfy the terms of the humble address to the Queen passed by Parliament on November 13.

Speaking in the Commons after the vote, Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom said: “We’ve tested the opinion of the House twice on this very serious subject.

“We’ve listened carefully and in light of the expressed will of the House we will publish the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to Cabinet.”

Geoffrey Cox
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The constitutional row came as:

– Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned a no-deal Brexit could result in shopping bills soaring by 10%;

– The European Court of Justice’s senior lawyer said that Article 50, which started the Brexit process, could be revoked unilaterally by the UK;

– A senior Toyota executive warned a no-deal Brexit could result in “stop-start production” for weeks or months at the car giant’s UK plant;

– The BBC dropped proposals for a TV debate featuring Mrs May, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn followed by a discussion between eight panellists including politicians from different sides of the Brexit argument.

The ECJ’s advocate general Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona said the UK could withdraw its notification to leave the EU before its exit in March 2019 without needing the approval of the other 27 states.

The guidance is not binding on the Luxembourg court, which is considering the issue in response to a request from British parliamentarians.

Mrs May’s official spokesman told reporters in Westminster that “this is not a final judgment”, adding: “It does nothing in any event to change the clear position of the Government that Article 50 is not going to be revoked.”

Meanwhile, Mr Carney stepped up his warnings about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit.

He told the Commons Treasury Committee that increased tariff prices, import costs and a collapse in the value of the pound would send food prices soaring “quite quickly”.

In the most extreme no-deal scenario, shopping bills could rise by up to 10% but even in an orderly no-deal withdrawal, with a transition period, grocery prices could rise by 6%, he said.

At the Commons Business Committee, Toyota Europe deputy managing director Tony Walker warned that without a deal to protect cross-continent supply chains, its operations in the UK would face major challenges.

“Without the Withdrawal Agreement, withdrawing with no deal, we would have stop-start production for weeks, possibly months,” he said. “It would be very, very difficult for us to cope with.”

Mrs May faces a battle to get her Brexit deal through Parliament and will begin the fight with a speech in the Commons at the start of five days of debate on the package.

Over the coming days she will deploy senior Cabinet ministers to make the case, with Chancellor Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid expected to appear at the despatch box.

Mrs May will tell MPs: “The British people want us to get on with a deal that honours the referendum and allows us to come together again as a country, whichever way we voted.

“This is the deal that delivers for the British people.”

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