In an unprecedented move, the British government has been found in contempt of parliament for the first time in its history as a days-long debate on the UK’s future with Europe makes a chaotic start.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government was found to be in contempt on Wednesday morning (Australian time) for refusing to release its full legal advice on Brexit.
The defeat underlined the depth of opposition among MPs to the Prime Minister’s deal on leaving the European Union ahead of a crucial vote on December 11, when MPs will be asked to approve it.
Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, said the vote had “huge constitutional and political significance” and it was “unprecedented” for government ministers to have been found in contempt.
The history-making contempt vote came shortly after the European Court of Justice released separate legal advice stating that Britain has the ability to unilaterally withdraw its Brexit notice before its scheduled departure in March.
The legal advice means the UK Parliament could discard Brexit and choose to remain in the EU without needing approval from the group’s other 28 nations.
The Labour Party, which is steadfastly opposed to leaving the EU, has signalled it will push for a fresh referendum on Brexit.
The contempt vote compounded Ms May’s difficult task in getting her unpopular Brexit deal approved by Parliament.
Opposition parties and the small Northern Irish party that props up Ms May’s minority government were furious that the government only provided an outline of the legal basis for its Brexit deal after parliament voted to be given the full advice.
They put forward a contempt motion, which was backed by 311-293 in a vote on Wednesday morning, that found ministers in contempt of Parliament and ordered the immediate publication of the advice.
“Today’s finding of contempt is a badge of shame for this government. It is of huge constitutional and political significance,” Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman, said after the vote.
“Never before has the House of Commons found ministers in contempt of parliament.”
The sanctions ultimately available include suspending an MP, most likely Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox. It was not clear whether the opposition parties would now push for that.
Such punishment is usually reserved for backbench MPs guilty of individual wrongdoing. In reality, the vote was about putting pressure on a weakened government.
So many MPs, from Ms May’s own Conservatives, as well as from the opposition parties, have spoken out against the deal that the odds look stacked against her winning the December 11 vote.
Mr Cox gave parliament an outline of his legal advice to the government on Monday.
Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, said on Tuesday that this had been a “full and frank exposition”, and that releasing the full advice would set a dangerous precedent.
She said the government, which had sought to slow down the process by referring the issue to parliament’s committee of privileges, had fulfilled the spirit of the order to publish.
The government said after the vote that it would now publish the full advice.