Hammer blow for Theresa May as Government found to be in contempt of Parliament over Brexit legal advice row

Posted On: 
4th December 2018

Ministers were in contempt of Parliament when they refused to reveal the full Brexit legal advice they have received, MPs have ruled.

Geoffrey Cox sets out the legal advice to MPs in the House of Commons yesterday
PA Images

In a huge blow for Theresa May, the Commons voted 311 to 293 to sanction the Government.

It is thought to be the first time that a government has found to be in contempt of Parliament.

EXPLAINED: What happens if the Government is found in contempt of parliament over Brexit

Cabinet minister could be suspended from Commons over Brexit legal advice contempt row

Opposition parties trigger contempt proceedings against Government over Brexit legal papers

A government amendment which would have referred the matter to the Privileges Committee had earlier been rejected by 311 votes to 307.

Within minutes of the result being announced, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said the Government had "listened carefully and we will publish the final and full advice" tomorrow.

Parliament passed a motion last month calling on ministers to reveal all of the legal advice on the Prime Minister's Brexit deal given to Cabinet by attorney general Geoffrey Cox.

But instead, Mr Cox yeserday produced a 52-page “reasoned position statement” on the contents of the withdrawal agreement, which will be voted on by Parliament next week.

A letter was then sent to Mr Bercow by Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP - who Theresa May relies on to prop up her government - accusing ministers of being in contempt of Parliament.

Opening today's debate, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer accused the Government of “wilfully refusing to comply with a binding order of this House”.

“Yesterday the Government published a reasoned position paper,” he said. “That was not legal advice, it simply described the deal, it was a synopsis.

“It was in the nature of an explainer, an explainer having already been published when the deal was published, was a long way from legal advice.

“The attorney made a statement to the House and then he answered questions, but the Government did not publish the full and final advice by the attorney general to the Cabinet. That is the long and short of it.

“The Government is wilfully refusing to comply with a binding order of this House and that is contempt.”

Responding on behalf of the Government, Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, said: “Anyone present in the chamber for the attorney general’s statement and his subsequent responses to questions can be in absolutely no doubt that the attorney general gave a full and frank exposition of the legal position of the withdrawal agreement.

“I simply reject any suggestion that the attorney general has done anything other than treat this house with anything other than the greatest of respect."

Tonight's defeat comes just hours before Mrs May kicks off five days of debate on her Brexit deal.

She is also facing the prospect of another defeat this evening over calls for Parliament to be able to amend any motion the Government brings to the Commons if the deal is voted down next week.