In historic first, UK government found in contempt of parliament

Row in lower chamber House of Commons centred on publication of legal advice related to British PM’s Brexit deal.

Brexit deal UK Parliament
The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, almost three years after it voted to leave the bloc [Toby Melville/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom  The UK government will publish in full legal advice it received regarding Prime Minister Theresa May’s widely criticised Brexit deal after it was found to be in contempt of parliament for failing to originally do so.

In a landmark vote on Tuesday, parliamentarians in the lower chamber House of Commons backed a motion, tabled a day before by six parties, demanding full disclosure of the counsel by 311 votes to 293.

The vote marked the first time in history a UK government has been found in contempt of parliament.

Responding to the result, the ruling Conservative Party’s Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom said the government intended to publish the advice on Wednesday.

“We have 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,” Leadsom told parliament.

The issue will also be referred to the Commons’ Privileges Committee to determine which ministers are accountable for the alleged contempt and whether any subsequent punishment is required, she added.

An earlier attempt by ministers to head off the contempt motion by having the entire issue referred to the cross-party Privileges Committee was defeated by four votes.

Acute clash of constitutional principle’

Tuesday’s furore came after the government’s publication on Monday of a 52-page summary of the legal counsel it received regarding May’s Brexit plan.

A binding parliamentary vote last month demanded ministers publish all of the advice they received on the proposed EU withdrawal agreement.

In an address to parliament on Monday, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox claimed publishing the full extent of legal advice he provided the government over the deal would be “contrary to the public interest”.

“I am caught in an acute clash of constitutional principle,” Cox 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 said the full extent of advice received by her government over the Brexit deal is confidential under lawyer-client privilege.

The main opposition Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, urged the government to comply with Tuesday’s order, which he described as being of “huge constitutional and political significance”.

‘Reinforces government’s fragility’

Analysts suggested Tuesday’s contempt motion was unlikely to result in any formal sanctions being taken against ministers, but instead was deployed as a “primarily political” tool intended to force the government into publishing the full extent of counsel it received.

“That [punishment of ministers] would only have happened if the government had continued to defy parliament with regard to the publication of legal advice,” Dominic Walsh, a policy analyst at the non-partisan independent policy think tank Open Europe, told Al Jazeera.

“But the political implications are significant … it reinforces how fragile the government is – the alliance with the DUP is all but dead,” Walsh added, referring to the partners of May’s Conservative party in government, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Nine of the DUP’s 10 members of parliament voted in favour of the contempt motion brought against the government.

‘Meaningful vote’

Following the vote, May kickstarted five days of parliamentary debate on her proposed withdrawal agreement with a statement to parliament.

A so-called “meaningful vote” on the proposed deal is set to take place on December 11 in the Commons, once the ongoing discussions have concluded.

Majority support would mean May can introduce a formal EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill to parliament for consideration and ratification in early 2019.


Majority opposition, however, would force her government to put forward a new plan within 21 days. A House of Commons vote on Tuesday afternoon determined that parliamentarians will have the right to amend any such motion.

Experts said parliament’s decision to grant itself the powers to amend any second Brexit proposal brought forward by May, should she lose the December 11 vote, could force the government to make major concessions on its current position regarding the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

“Up until today, the option for the government seemed to be that it had a few more weeks before it had to face the music for a second vote if it lost the first attempt on December 11,” Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at the UK’s University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera.

“But after today’s developments, the government will [instead] have to knit together a new coalition of MPs, including some who are sceptical of the current bill before parliament but might accept an amended version of it,” Lucas added.

Walsh, meanwhile, suggested parliament would attempt to push Brexit in a “softer direction” should May be defeated on December 11, “given that it’s more risky for Brexiteers to vote down the deal, as this may lead to the opposite outcome of the one they intend.

“Paradoxically, then, today’s events might actually reduce the size of the rebellion on the meaningful vote next week,” he added.

May’s proposed deal has been roundly criticised across Britain’s political spectrum, including from within her own party, and is touted to be rejected by a majority of parliamentarians next Tuesday.

Source: Al Jazeera