London, United Kingdom – The United Kingdom government may have contravened parliamentary rules by failing to publish in full legal advice it received regarding British Prime Minister Theresa May‘s widely criticised Brexit deal, the House of Commons speaker has ruled.
In a statement to the Commons late on Monday evening, Speaker John Bercow said there was an “arguable case” that a contempt of Parliament had been committed by the government after it refused to reveal the full extent of counsel it had been given on May’s European Union withdrawal plan.
His decision means parliamentarians will vote on Tuesday whether to refer the case to the cross-party Commons Standards Committee.
If a majority vote in favour of passing the issue up to the committee, it will then be tasked with determining whether a contempt took place and, if deemed necessary, recommending a punishment.
Any sanction suggested would need to be approved by the Commons before being enforced.
Bercow’s ruling came just hours after a multi-party alliance headed by the main opposition Labour Party wrote to the speaker alleging the government’s actions on Monday violated the result of a binding parliamentary vote carried out last month.
The November 13 vote demanded ministers publish all of the advice they received on the proposed EU withdrawal agreement.
The appeal to Bercow on Monday, announced by Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer, was backed by five other parties, including the ruling Conservative Party’s government partners, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
“It is apparent to us – and we believe the overwhelming majority of the House [of Commons] – that the information released today does not constitute the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet,” a letter jointly signed by representatives from each of the six parties said.
The furore was kick-started by the government’s publication of a 52-page summary of the legal counsel it received regarding May’s Brexit plan.
Addressing parliament on Monday, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox claimed publishing the full extent of legal advice received by the government over the deal would be “contrary to the public interest”.
“I am caught in an acute clash of constitutional principle,” he said.
“Let us suppose I had given advice … covering all sorts of matters, including our relationships with foreign states … including matters of acute importance to this country, would it be right for the Attorney General, regardless of the harm to the public interest, to divulge his opinion. I say it wouldn’t.”
May, for her part, has claimed the full extent of advice received by her government over the Brexit deal is confidential under lawyer-client privilege.
The British leader is under intense parliamentary and public scrutiny over her Brexit deal, which has drawn the ire of critics across the political spectrum, including from within her own party.
Earlier on Monday, former science and universities minister Sam Gyimah called on May to “restore trust in politics” ahead of next week’s parliamentary vote on her deal by publishing in full the legal advice received by the government regarding the proposed terms of withdrawal from the 28-member EU.
“Levelling with the public and parliament on Brexit is key to restoring trust in politics, healing divisions and unifying the country behind any preferred outcome,” he said on Twitter.
Gyimah quit the government last week over the terms of May’s brokered withdrawal agreement with the EU.
Analysts, meanwhile, said the ongoing furore over the publication of the legal advice was a means of undermining May’s embattled government as it seeks to cajole parliament into backing the British leader’s EU withdrawal deal.
“This is a move to ramp up pressure on May, she is already under attack from so many avenues and this is just another angle to try and attack her administration and undermine her Brexit deal,” Pawel Swidlicki, a Brexit analyst at communications firm Edelman UK, told Al Jazeera.
“It doesn’t really change any of the fundamentals regarding Brexit, however, and when the debate on the substance of May’s deal starts tomorrow [in parliament] that will become the real story,” he added.
The House of Commons will hold five days of debate from Tuesday on the government’s proposed Brexit deal prior to the December 11 vote.