London – A vote holding the UK government in “contempt of parliament” is historic – but other than causing acute embarrassment to Prime Minister Theresa May that leaves her with a bloody nose, its fallout is limited.
The motion was passed because of May’s failure to release legal advice given to her cabinet about the deal she has reached with the European Union on the terms of the country’s turbulent Brexit from the bloc.
It is the first time that ministers have been reprimanded by the House of Commons in this way in modern parliamentary history.
However, the legal advice in dispute was promptly published this morning and merely confirms what many MPs suspected anyway – that complex “backstop” arrangements to keep the UK in Europe’s customs union following Brexit could last indefinitely.
Members of parliament voted by 311 votes to 293 on Tuesday to find May’s Conservative government in contempt for failing to obey a parliamentary order, agreed by MPs in November, to release its legal advice.
The vote was sparked by the insistence of the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox – acting on the instructions of May herself – that it was not in the public interest to publish the advice.
Instead, earlier this week Cox published a summary of the advice given to his colleagues and then took questions from MPs – sparking outrage.
The opposition Labour Party’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer accused May’s ministers of “willfully refusing” to comply with a binding parliamentary instruction.
Evidently, enough MPs from the government’s own side agreed – albeit for diverse and conflicting reasons – and the motion of contempt was passed.
Contempt reflects anything that interferes with or obstructs parliament or its members from doing their jobs – but is loosely defined, and determined on a case by case basis.
While in the past this has included criminal acts or efforts to mislead the House, parliament is limited in the sanctions it can impose. It can, for example, order the government to take a particular course of action and escalate threats to suspend ministers.
“Parliament’s powers to punish contempt are quite weak,” said Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government. “Parliament used to be able to imprison or fine perpetrators, as a court of law, but these powers have lapsed. The last time parliament fined someone was in 1666 – and the last time it imprisoned anyone was in 1880.”
Oliver Patel, research associate at the University College London European Institute, added while contempt is a serious matter, the charge is now likely to proceed to a standards committee where Conservative members could kick it into the long grass.
“I presume the fact that they are publishing this legal advice right now is the concession – and I’m not sure there will be any further tangible implications. This is probably the end of this story.”
While the contempt vote has little direct bearing on the divisive process by which the UK will actually exit the EU, it is of considerable symbolic importance.
In the UK’s ancient parliament, it is what Starmer described as “a badge of shame” that can force the accused to protect their reputations.
In the past, this has prompted ministers to resign after being accused of misleading the House – but before contempt proceedings were formally launched.
On this occasion, however, the government’s reputation is already in tatters, which explains why May was prepared to risk further damage by holding out on this issue.
This means the contempt vote can be understood above all as a political manoeuvre by those MPs in parliament unhappy at the way she has excluded them from the Brexit negotiating process – and hence a signal they are wresting back control.
Patel said while the contempt vote was “a sideshow”, the fact that the legal advice was now being published could be politically significant by confirming “in black and white” the UK cannot unilaterally leave the backstop and by providing Labour with ammunition.
Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera: “If you’re a bird watcher and you see a rare bird, it makes your day; this is a bit like that … if you’re into Westminster.
“But if your real interest is what is the future of British relations with the European Union, it’s probably not as significant as you might think, and I’m not sure it has changed all that much.”