Theresa May’s government found in contempt of parliament
British PM opens five days of debate on Brexit deal as MPs pass motion over legal advice
Prime minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons at the start of a five-day debate on her Brexit deal. Photograph: PA Wire
MPs in the House of Commons prepare to announce the result of a vote on whether Theresa May’s government is in contempt of parliament. Photograph: PA Wire
Boris Johnson speaks in the House of Commons at the start of a five-day debate on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Photograph: PA Wire
British prime minister Theresa May’s government suffered embarrassing blows on Tuesday at the start of five days of debate over her plans to leave the European Union that could determine the future of Brexit and the fate of her government. The five days of debate in parliament come ahead of a crucial vote on December 11th, when MPs will be asked to approve the deal.
In a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the government was found in contempt of parliament for refusing to release its full legal advice on the prime minister’s deal with the EU on the UK’s exit from the bloc.
The vote also orders the immediate publication of the “final and full” legal advice on the Brexit deal.
MPs supported the cross-party motion to find ministers in contempt of parliament by 311 votes to 293.
MPs had earlier rejected a government amendment to the motion, which asked for the parliament’s Committee of Privileges to examine whether ministers were in contempt of parliament over the issue and could have delayed any publication of the advice.
The House of Commons also voted on Tuesday to hand more power to parliament over what happens next if Mrs May’s Brexit deal is rejected on December 11th, in a move which could diminish the chances of a no-deal exit from the union.
The procedural change means MPs could put forward alternatives if the current deal on the table is rejected.
Following the votes, Mrs May officially opened the five days of parliamentary debate on her Brexit deal.
She addressed the contentious backstop for Northern Ireland, a default post-Brexit option based around avoiding a hard Border in the absence of alternative arrangements, which is enshrined in the deal.
Mrs May said that without the backstop there was no deal. She said that she understands there are fears that the backstop, if invoked, would last indefinitely, but said the legal text of the deal made it clear that the backstop would be temporary. She said the backstop was not a trick to trap the UK in the EU.
She said the choice before parliament was clear: this deal, no deal, or no Brexit. She said they could not afford to spend a decade going around in circles on the issue, and rebuffed proposals for a second Brexit referendum.
“I don’t say that this deal is perfect. It was never going to be. That’s the nature of a negotiation,” Mrs May said.
“We should not let the search for the perfect Brexit prevent a good Brexit that delivers for the British people.”
Leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn responded by calling the deal “a leap in the dark”, and saying that Mrs May should seek a better one or step aside.
Former foreign secretary and Brexiteer Boris Johnson then faced objections from other Tory MPs during his own address. He claimed that the deal was a “national humiliation that makes a mockery of Brexit”.
He said the UK would be permanently trapped in a backstop because the EU had “no reason to take its foot off our neck.
“They will keep us in permanent captivity as a memento mori, as a reminder to the world of what happens to all those who try to leave the EU.
“This is a recipe for blackmail and it’s open to any member of the EU to name its price for Britain’s right to leave the backstop.”
Opposition parties and the DUP, which props up Mrs May’s minority government, had been furious that the government only provided an outline of the legal advice on its Brexit deal after parliament had voted to be given the full advice.
They subsequently put forward a motion to find ministers in contempt of parliament and order the immediate publication of the full advice.
“The government is wilfully refusing to comply with a binding order of this House and that is contempt,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, told the House of Commons at the start of the debate on the contempt motion on Tuesday. “This motion is a last resort.”
Following the vote on Tuesday, parliament leader Andrea Leadsom said the government would publish the full legal advice on Wednesday.
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds confirmed that his party had backed the contempt motion and had been “crucial” in defeating the government.
Speaking during the debate on the contempt motion, Mr Dodds criticised the government for ignoring the vote passed by the House and for refusing to release the full Brexit legal advice.
He said it was not up to attorney general Geoffrey Cox to decide whether it was “in the national interest” to publish it.
His DUP colleague Sammy Wilson then intervened to say: “If the government, and the prime minister, is going round the country trying to convince the populace that this is a good deal, this secret approach only confirms in people’s minds that there’s something to hide, and if anything the government is scoring an own goal by refusing to provide this advice.”
Mr Dodds accused members of the cabinet of releasing some of the advice to the media, adding: “If the press are entitled [to the advice], then the members of this House are entitled to have this advice.”
Mr Cox on Monday gave parliament an outline of the legal advice on Monday.
So many politicians from Mrs May’s own Conservatives have spoken out against the Brexit deal that the odds look stacked against her winning the December 11th vote.
Meanwhile, prospects of a head-to-head Brexit debate between Mr Corbyn and Mrs May on Sunday have been dampened after the BBC dropped plans to host it.
The broadcaster said it was “disappointed” not to have reached an agreement on the proposals for the debate, saying it wanted the programme to have included other voices. – Reuters/PA