As one commentator noted, there really isn’t enough popcorn in the world for the festivities taking place in the House of Commons today (December 4) – starting with the government’s humiliation at being found in contempt of Parliament.
MPs voted to find the government in contempt by a margin of 311 votes to 293.
Theresa May and her advisers must now deliver all legal advice they received before agreeing their Brexit deal with the EU to Parliament – or face the possibility of further sanction.
The Tory government had been in turmoil, desperately trying to defend against the motion that Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox committed the contempt by refusing to provide MPs with the information as demanded by the Commons in a Humble Motion that was approved unanimously on November 13.
Satirists had a field day –
Theresa May tells Parliament ‘I would have shared full legal advice on #Brexit deal but the dog ate it’#Brexshit #BrexitShambles #FBPE #FBR #StopBrexitSaveBritain #StopBrexit #PeoplesVote #BrexitChaos #BrexitAgreementhttps://t.co/GlJ9YIjrxt
— Luke 🇪🇺 🏳️🌈 #FBPE #FBR (@Randombob18) December 4, 2018
– but the serious issue behind it is that Mrs May and her cronies have defied the rule of law. Parliament has supremacy over the government and the government may not ignore Parliament’s will.
Here’s a quick summary of the issue:
IMPORTANT: Today we’re joining forces with all the other parties to prove that the Tories are in contempt of Parliament.
But what does that mean?
Take a look and share the news 👇 pic.twitter.com/BxZPpsodls
— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) December 4, 2018
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, opened the debate by demanding that Parliament rule the government to be in contempt.
He said the issue was whether the government had complied with a binding order of the House to release the Attorney-General’s legal advice.
The government is wilfully refusing to comply with a binding motion of the House and is therefore in contempt, he said.
The House of Commons is a higher authority than the government, he said. Parliament is sovereign, not the executive.
He pointed out that the government was making “a plea of mitigation”, not a defence.
And he pointed out that “for months the government has ignored opposition day motions and now that tactic has got them in very deep water indeed”.
Then Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, presented a government amendment – that the matter should be referred to the Commons’ privileges committee. This is normal procedure, but Opposition parties and the DUP have demanded that the matter be handled by Parliament because it refers to a vote that is happening next week.
In his speech, Sir Keir Starmer had addressed this claim: “The short point is this: there is nothing to refer. A binding order was made and the government is refusing to comply with it. The government is simply playing for time, hoping this is in the long grass until the vote has gone.”
Ms Leadsom called on MPs to “act with caution” in the contempt vote. She said the government had put up the A-G for two hours of “frank” questions and published a 48-page legal position paper in lieu of full advice.
That is exactly the point – the government put forward what it wanted to provide, rather than what it was ordered to provide. She was as good as admitting the contempt Sir Keir Starmer had alleged.
Then she made a point that became a subject for humour:
Leadsom says Labour’s parliamentary tactic was last used in the 19th century. Jacob Rees-Mogg smiles to himself, as if recalling a joyful memory.
— Owen Bennett (@owenjbennett) December 4, 2018
After that, the debate got bogged down in technicalities and nit-picking.
Notable in the midst of this was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s magnificent attempt to face in both directions at once. He said the government could not refuse to honour a Humble Address, claiming the national interest, because “the government interest and the national interest are different things”. Therefore the demand for the full legal advice on the Brexit deal must be honoured. But he said he would be supporting the government’s amendment – because he did not think the motion went far enough and should have identified the culprit and suggested a punishment.
More seriously: One MP after another stood up to suggest that publishing the papers would not be in the national interest because it may prejudice future relationships with others. This was misleading Parliament – and the country.
The Humble Address did not demand publication of the legal papers; it did not suggest that they should be made available to the general public – it called for them to be “laid before Parliament”. The only people who would see them would be MPs, and only in order to inform their opinions and debate on the Brexit agreement. So arguments about harming the national interest were nonsense.
The government’s amendment was first to be tested – and fell by just four votes, with 307 in favour and 311 against.
The government must now publish the Attorney-General’s final legal advice in full – and has committed to do so tomorrow (December 5).