The British government was found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release its full legal advice on Brexit, ahead of five days of debate on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal leading to a vote by Members of Parliament (MPs) on December 11 on whether to accept or deny the deal. The motion was backed by 311-293 in a vote on Tuesday and found ministers in contempt of Parliament, ordering the immediate publication of the advice. The government will now publish the full legal advice on Britain’s exit from the European Union (E.U.).
The Government's defeat is a landmark moment which effectively sees Parliament claw back more power over the executive and ends the longstanding principle of confidentiality and legal privilege. The contempt vote centres on the refusal by ministers to release the legal advice given by the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to the Prime Minister, despite Parliament passing a motion demanding that it be made available. Whilst MPs argued that the gravity of the vote due to take place next week warranted the publication of the advice, the Government has insisted that doing so would run contrary to the public interest and would harm its negotiating position.
Instead, P.M. May dispatched Mr. Cox to the House of Commons Monday afternoon to answer hours of enquiries from backbench MPs. This was the first time in nearly forty years that an Attorney General has taken questions on legal advice, which is normally treated as privileged information between lawyer and client and which cannot be disclosed.
Mr. Cox’s efforts did not satisfy the four opposition parties, or the Democratic Unionist Party, who submitted a joint letter to the Speaker, John Bercow, asking that he trigger contempt proceedings. He obliged, meaning that the Government now finds itself in an unprecedented situation in which ministers, for the first time, could be found in contempt and facing sanctions which, in their most extreme form, could result in suspension or permanent expulsion from Parliament.
Senior fellow at the Institute for Government Catherine Haddon said the opposition wanted to use “every opportunity they have to show the instability of the government” and that the contempt motion was a “show of force” which could foreshadow both the final vote on the deal and the various amendments MPs are trying to attach to it.
Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, said this had been a “full and frank exposition” and that releasing the full advice would set a dangerous precedent. Ms. Leadsom 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. "We've 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 but, recognising the very serious constitutional issues this raises, I have referred the matter to the privileges committee to consider the implications of the humble address," she said.