It’s contempt, then: Government failure to provide legal advice on Brexit to Parliament triggers proceedings

Geoffrey Cox: The Attorney General deliberately refused to provide Parliament with the documents it had demanded, making it impossible to judge either that advice or Theresa May’s Brexit agreement.

The Conservative government is facing contempt of Parliament proceedings after publishing a 43-page – redacted – summary of the legal advice provided to it about its Brexit agreement with the EU, rather than providing all the advice it was given to MPs.

As the Humble Motion approved by Parliament unanimously on November 13 was for the full advice and not a summary that has been edited to remove anything critical of the government, Mrs May’s administration may face contempt proceedings as early as this evening (December 3).

There was a possibility that the Tories could fend off such proceedings, if Attorney General Geoffrey Cox were to announce a u-turn by the government during his oral statement on the matter this afternoon.

But he did not.

Instead, he simply commended his 43-page summary – he called it a “commentary” – to the Commons.

He said: “The matters of law can only inform the political decision” and that, in the time available “it is impossible to cover each and every matter of law that arises over 585 pages” of the withdrawal agreement.

It seems to This Writer that if the government’s top lawyer hasn’t had time to consider all the implications of an international agreement of such seismic importance as this, he should have demanded an extension until he had been able to do the job properly. Anything else is incompetence and he admitted as much at around 4.30pm today.

Failure to bring the full legal advice before Parliament is therefore also failure to show what information was not provided to the Tory government. Without that, it would be impossible for Parliament to support Mrs May’s deal.

Without it, the advice provided on the customs union, the Northern Ireland border backstop, Gibraltar or whatever else is meaningless and Labour is right to launch contempt proceedings.

Mr Cox said MPs only had to ask him for information and they would receive it – but this assumes that he is in possession of such information and he had already admitted that he had not had time to consider all the angles.

Not only is the government failing in its duty to agree a reasonable deal that is the best possible for the United Kingdom, it is holding Parliament in contempt by refusing to allow other MPs the means to analyse the deal that has been agreed – alongside the legal advice provided by Mr Cox – and identify failings that must be corrected for the protection of us all.

We should be grateful to Mr Cox for making it clear that Mrs May’s Brexit agreement must not be passed by Parliament under any circumstance.

But his behaviour towards MPs is utterly unacceptable and the government must be held to account for it.

Contempt of Parliament should not be a trivial offence. If it is proved, then the guilty party could face expulsion from the House of Commons. So it will be interesting to see who will face Labour’s proceedings.

Mr Cox would seem the obvious target – but he has been constrained by the choices of others. Most notable among these is Theresa May, who has recklessly pushed her lumbering, clumsy Brexit juggernaut through Parliament and the EU at breakneck speed.

Shadow Solicitor-General Nick Thomas-Symonds said the Attorney General’s statement was entirely unacceptable.

He said there were differences between the legal positions leaked to the press over the weekend – and why did that happen? – and the political decisions of which Mr Cox spoke.

And he pointed out that the Humble Motion passed on November 13 demanded the final legal advice to cabinet, not a commentary.

“Isn’t the reality of the situation that the government does not want MPs to see the full advice for fear of the political consequences?” he asked.

That certainly seems to be the case.

Not only has Mrs May’s government deliberately committed a serious Parliamentary offence; it has torpedoed its own deal.

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