Theresa May’s minority Conservative government was in crisis after Parliament ordered her to release 58 secret studies into the economic effects of Brexit – and her ministers refused to say whether they would agree to the demand.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Exiting the EU, Keir Starmer, used an antiquated procedure called a “humble address”, in which the Queen is asked to direct that the documents – “sectoral impact assessments” – must be released.
As this was an Opposition motion, the government refused to allow Conservatives to vote on it. Several prominent Tories including Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston had spoken in favour of releasing the documents, prompting accusations that Mrs May knew she would lose the vote – and has lost control of the Parliamentary process of exiting the EU.
It meant the motion, for the assessments to be released to the Commons’ Brexit select committee for scrutiny, passed unanimously.
Independent Parliamentary clerks delivered a bombshell: The decision is binding on the government. That is to say that the governent must now deliver the documents or face the possibility of being found in contempt of Parliament.
And the Commons’ Speaker, John Bercow, said he would consider “carefully” any representations alleging contempt if the documents were not delivered promptly.
“I would consider that matter most carefully,” he said. “The question of time, in both the context of the decision taken by the House tonight and the wider context of public policy, is an important question, and yes, it does form part of the equation that the Chair would have to address.”
So, what happens now? Twitter has been a flurry of activity:
Fallon resigns. Government loses vote on Brexit impact studies…
Tory HQ right now: pic.twitter.com/c2SaDeBlGt
— David Schneider (@davidschneider) November 1, 2017
Commons just voted to publish Brexit papers ministers said they couldn’t publish. Story of this parliament = government’s got no majority
— Nick Robinson (@bbcnickrobinson) November 1, 2017
The opposition is basically the government of Britain as of tonight's commons vote – it is forcing executive to act
— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) November 1, 2017
Speaker says that govt should quickly comply with vote to release secret Brexit impact reports. Should not take days.
— Anti Tory Alliance (@AntiToryAllies) November 1, 2017
I understand the Govt will now agree to publish the 58 impact assessments – but redacted of anything that prejudices the negotiation. https://t.co/xGaQjauWaN
— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) November 1, 2017
If Tom Newton Dunn’s tweet is accurate, then there could be more angry scenes as redacting the documents would be denying the will of Parliament and the government could still be facing allegations of contempt.
Last word – for now – should go to Dennis Skinner, who ended the debate by asking the Speaker: “I know that Mr Speaker likes to reply to points of order, so I will just throw him one. He and I have been here a long time, so, like me, does he feel that the Government are dying on their feet?”
Mr Bercow did not answer – perhaps because the answer is obvious.
Dennis Skinner spot on that the Government has scent of death, sans Leader, ideas or hope terrified of exposing their fatal divisions.
— Paul Flynn (@PaulFlynnMP) November 1, 2017
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