The UK Government must today publish its “final and full” legal advice on Theresa May’s Brexit deal after MPs forced its hand in a humiliating Commons defeat.
In a constitutional first and embarrassing blow to the embattled Tory leader, MPs last night backed a motion holding ministers in contempt of parliament by 311 votes to 293.
This is an ancient offence relating to “conduct which improperly interferes with the performance by either House of its functions.”
The government had hoped publication of a summary of the attorney general’s conclusions would satisfy the House following an earlier order to produce the information.
But Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, with support from the SNP and the Tories’ Democratic Unionist allies among other parties, pressed ahead with the motion.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom then tried to see off the attack via an amendment that would have had the question referred to the committee of privileges for consideration of the “national interest arguments for not releasing the legal advice alongside the government’s duty to parliament”.
But it was rejected by 311 votes to 307, with MPs accusing ministers of trying to punt the matter into the long grass beyond next Tuesday’s so-called meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration.
Reacting afterwards, Mr Starmer said the contempt finding was a “badge of shame” for the government and of “huge constitutional and political significance”.
He added: “Never before has the House of Commons found ministers in contempt of parliament.
“By treating parliament with contempt, the government has proved it has lost its majority and the respect of the House.
“The prime minister can’t keep pushing parliament away or avoiding responsible scrutiny.”
Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird called it the “latest example of how catastrophically Theresa May is handling Brexit”.
In the debate, Mrs Leadsom argued that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who answered questions from the Despatch Box for more than two hours on Monday, had given a “frank assessment” and urged the House to exercise caution as there was “no real dispute as to the meaning of the legal effect of the withdrawal agreement”.
She also said the government had a responsibility to protect legal officers’ advice otherwise good government could be compromised and information enter the public domain that was not in the national interest.
The Conservative frontbencher added: “The conventions I have spoken about stand and endure because they respect the proper balance between government and parliament and the principle that ministers should be as open as it is possible to be, provided disclosure of information does not compromise the wider public interest. We chip away at them at our peril.
“In this mother of all parliaments, surely we are nothing if we don’t uphold our own constitutional practices in the appropriate way?”
But the SNP’s Peter Grant said it was the role of parliament to stem the “excesses” of the executive.
He told MPs: “The government that seeks to place itself above the express will of this parliament is a government in contempt of the people and a government that has already taken a dangerous step on the road from democracy towards dictatorship.”
And he said the document released on Monday could “hardly have been more patronising than if it had pictures to colour in”.
Earlier in the day, Mrs May had told her cabinet its publication and the appearance of Mr Cox were “by themselves extraordinary steps for any government to take”.