Theresa May has made a last-ditch attempt to rally MPs behind her Brexit deal after suffering the historic humiliation of seeing her Government found in contempt of Parliament.
In dramatic scenes at Westminster, the Government bowed to pressure to publish the “final and full” legal advice to Cabinet on the deal after MPs voted by 311 to 293 that its failure to do so amounted to contempt.
The Prime Minister’s Democratic Unionist Party allies – along with Tory MPs Philip Hollobone and Peter Bone – joined opposition parties in the unprecedented move.
It is the first time in modern history that any Government has been found in contempt and means the highly sensitive advice provided by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will be published, in contravention of long-standing practice.
Ministers are expected to set out tomorrow how this will be done.
The vote came shortly before Mrs May kicked off a five-day debate ahead of the December 11 “meaningful vote” with a speech lasting more than an hour in which she told MPs she had delivered “the very best deal for the British people” and backed it “with my whole heart”.
Before the Prime Minister appeared at the despatch box, her Government had gone down to defeat for the third time in an hour.
MPs backed a move that could put Parliament in the driving seat if the Brexit deal is rejected on December 11 by giving the Commons the power to amend a motion that Mrs May would be required to make within the following 21 days to set out the Government’s next steps.
Some 26 Tory MPs – including former ministers Sir Michael Fallon, Damian Green and Sir Oliver Letwin – rebelled on the amendment tabled by ex-attorney general Dominic Grieve.
This could open the door for the Commons to throw its weight behind a Norway-style soft Brexit or even a second EU referendum, though prominent Leave-backing MPs questioned whether any such vote would be binding on ministers.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the finding of contempt was “a badge of shame” for the Government, with “huge constitutional and political significance”.
“By treating Parliament with contempt, the Government has proved it has lost its majority and the respect of the House,” Sir Keir said.
“The Prime Minister can’t keep pushing Parliament away or avoiding responsible scrutiny.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable repeated calls for a second EU referendum, saying: “Theresa May’s majority has evaporated and the credibility of her deal is evaporating with it.”
Asked if Mrs May still felt she could command a majority in the Commons for the crunch vote next Tuesday, a Downing Street source said: “Everybody knows the parliamentary arithmetic.
“The fact is, during the course of this administration we have won the overwhelming majority of votes that have taken place on the floor of the House of Commons.”
Opening debate on the deal she struck in Brussels last month, Mrs May warned: “Don’t imagine that if we vote this down another deal is going to miraculously appear.
“The alternative is uncertainty and risk – the risk Brexit could be stopped, the risk we could crash out with no deal.”
She said it would not be in the “national interest” to block the Withdrawal Agreement, adding: “The only certainty would be uncertainty.”
MPs’ decisions over the next week would “set the course our country takes for decades to come”, she said.
Mrs May told them: “I promise you today this is the very best deal for the British people, I ask you to back it in the best interests of our constituents and our country.
“And with my whole heart I commend this motion to the House.”
In a speech repeatedly interrupted by MPs attacking her deal, the Prime Minister pledged to give Parliament and the devolved administrations a “greater and more formal role” in forthcoming negotiations with the EU over trade – but declined to say whether MPs would get a vote on that deal.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May’s deal would “make this country worse off”.
The drama in the Chamber came after:
– Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned a no-deal Brexit could result in shopping bills soaring by 10%;
– The European Court of Justice’s senior lawyer said Article 50, which started the Brexit process, could be revoked unilaterally by the UK;
– A senior Toyota executive warned a no-deal Brexit could result in “stop-start production” for weeks or months at the car giant’s UK plant;
– The BBC dropped proposals for a TV debate featuring Mrs May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn followed by a discussion between eight panellists including politicians from different sides of the Brexit argument.
The ECJ’s advocate general Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona said the UK could withdraw its notification to leave the EU before its exit in March 2019 without needing the approval of the other 27 states.
The guidance is not binding on the Luxembourg court, which is considering the issue in response to a request from British parliamentarians.
Meanwhile, Mr Carney told the Commons Treasury Committee that increased tariff prices, import costs and a collapse in the value of the pound after a no-deal Brexit would send food prices soaring “quite quickly”.
In the most extreme no-deal scenario, shopping bills could rise by up to 10% but even in an orderly no-deal withdrawal, with a transition period, grocery prices could rise by 6%, he said.
Mrs May faces a battle to get her Brexit deal through Parliament and will deploy senior Cabinet ministers, with Chancellor Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid all expected to appear at the despatch box over the coming days.