What is the point of having an offence of ‘contempt of Parliament’ if any punishment is so light that MPs aren’t worried about committing it?
I always thought MPs who were found guilty of contempt faced the possibility of being expelled from Parliament but after Conservative MPs – notably Iain Duncan Smith – committed the offence time and time again, it became clear that the threat of penalisation for it is a paper tiger.
In fact, the most discomfort any MP is likely to suffer is a paper cut from the notification letter. Big deal.
And in this particular instance, who will take the fall?
The government is being accused of “showing contempt for this house” by Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer, who has demanded to know why ministers are refusing to publish the government’s full legal advice relating to Theresa May’s Brexit deal in an emergency Commons debate this morning (November 29).
He said the government’s counter offer of sending attorney general Geoffrey Cox to answer questions on Monday was “not good enough”.
So – what, would everybody in the government be found in contempt?
Would it be Mr Cox, the Attorney General who said the Tory government would not publish the full legal advice, despite having been ordered to do so in a binding vote on November 13?
Or how about Robert Buckland, the solicitor general who said Mr Cox would attend Parliament and answer questions on the matter “in the fullest possible way” – which means nothing, as their idea of what’s “possible” certainly won’t coincide with that of the Labour Party or the British public?
Some cabinet sources say that the full legal advice makes clear that the mutual exit mechanism negotiated by Theresa May to the controversial Northern Irish backstop is a figleaf, and that in reality the European Union has an effective veto on whether the UK can abandon it.
10 Downing Street has denied this. So should Mrs May face contempt proceedings, for failing to supply the full factual information that would support this claim?
Either way, you have to agree with Sir Keir:
Not good enough. Parliament won the right to see the full legal advice and that is precisely what we expect to see. Labour will not let ministers off the hook. https://t.co/PVP3ROudwc
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) November 28, 2018
Commons Speaker John Bercow has made it clear that the government could be in contempt of Parliament if it fails to provide the information as demanded:
Keir Starmer, has been told by speaker John Bercow that the government’s decision to defy the binding Commons vote on publishing full legal advice on #Brexit, could mean they are in contempt of parliament!#BrexitShambles 🇬🇧🇪🇺#TakeBackControl #peoplesvote @TheCanaryUK pic.twitter.com/iO8gyFx6Ru
— bheardmedia (@bheardmedia) November 28, 2018
My opinion is that any demand for action in respect of contempt of Parliament can wait until after MPs hear Mr Cox on Monday. There’s no reason to go off half-cocked.
But my fear is that, even if anyone in the government is found guilty, it won’t mean anything at all.
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