Theresa May faces defeat in historic contempt battle over refusal to publish legal advice, as pivotal debate begins

Theresa May is facing defeat in an unprecedented constitutional row after the Speaker, John Bercow, said there was an “arguable case” the government had acted in contempt of parliament over the publication of key Brexit papers.

Labour and other opposition MPs, including Ms May’s DUP allies, tabled an emergency contempt motion after arguing that ministers have failed to comply with a Commons resolution demanding the full legal advice on the Brexit deal.

The row heaps further misery on the prime minister as she begins a five-day Commons debate on the Brexit blueprint, which culminates in crunch votes that could threaten her leadership and her government.

It also comes as the European Court of Justice said that the UK can revoke its withdrawal from the EU without consent from other members states.

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MPs are now voting on the government amendment to the contempt motion, tabled by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom. It would refer the matter to the Privileges Committee to consider, effectively kicking it into the long grass.
Lizzy Buchan

The BBC has scrapped its plans to hold a potential Brexit debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn after failing to find a proposal suiting both party leaders, my colleague Ashley Cowburn writes.

Interesting observation from Sky News’ political editor. Kevin Foster, the Torbay MP, is the latest to speak at length in support of the government. He is a parliamentary private secretary – a junior ministerial aide who is bound to toe the government line.

Are they trying to buy time before the vote?

The BBC has failed to reach an agreement for a TV debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May amid an impasse between Labour and No10

My colleague Ben Kentish has written a piece on the Dominic Grieve amendment, where Tory rebels hope parliament can seize control of Brexit if MPs reject Theresa May’s deal.

Tory rebels launch bid to let Parliament take control of Brexit if MPs vote to stop Theresa May’s deal

Looking ahead, MPs are preparing to begin five days of debate on the prime minister’s Brexit deal. This includes up to eight hours of debate on December 4, 5, 6 and 10 – with the crunch votes expected on December 11.

First up, there will be a quick debate on what is known as the programme motion – which sets out the timescale and framework of the debate. Amendments have been tabled by two Labour MPs to extend the time for debate.

There is also a significant amendment from Tory rebel Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general. It would give MPs a say on what happens next if the Brexit deal is voted down next week.

The government absolutely does NOT want this to happen. Interestingly, it has been backed by 16 Tory MPs. Some are the usual rebels, like Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston but other signatories are surprising, such as Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles.

Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Commons he would support the government, although he did not agree with the dismissal of “ancient procedures” like the humble address being used to hold it to account.
He said: “I think it’s right that a committee looks at this issue in broad terms because it may be right that the House wishes to take a self-denying ordinance on the extent of humble addresses.

“It may be right we would like to say specifically they would be deemed disorderly and therefore not brought forward if they related to matters concerning the security services.”

As the debate over the legal advice continues in the Commons, the debacle over another debate – a televised one between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May – has entered a new phase. This afternoon the Labour’s leaders team has issued an ultimatum to the prime minister’s team for a head-to-head debate.

A party spokesman said: “When Number 10 told the media she wanted a head-to-head debate on her botched Brexit deal, Jeremy Corbyn immediately agreed. Jeremy Corbyn then swiftly accepted ITV’s proposal for a straightforward head-to-head debate with Theresa May. But the Prime Minister has rejected it.

“Since then, the Prime Minister’s team and their preferred broadcaster, the BBC, have put together a confused format which would limit head-to-head debating time, with a built-in advantage for the Government.

“The BBC’s latest proposal is a mish-mash, with a lop-sided panel of other politicians and public figures, not a straightforward head-to-head debate. The BBC could – as ITV and Sky have proposed to do – fairly represent other viewpoints and parties in other programmes on its network.

“The public has a right to a genuine head-to-head debate on the Prime Minister’s worst-of-all-worlds deal.

“Either Theresa May should accept ITV’s straightforward proposal or – if she prefers the BBC – ask the corporation for a genuine head-to-head debate. Jeremy Corbyn is ready to take part in either.

“If the Prime Minister turns down the opportunity of a genuine head-to-head debate, it will be clear she is once again dodging a TV debate with the leader of the opposition on the future of our country.”

His remarks come after Number 10 accused Mr Corbyn of “running scared” over the debate on Sunday. You can read more below.

Brexit: Downing Street accuses Corbyn of ‘running scared’ as TV debate row rumbles on

Former attorney general – and Tory Brexit rebel – Dominic Grieve says it is “manifestly clear” that the government has not complied properly with the terms of the motion.

He says the attorney general is not to blame, he is acting on behalf of his client – eg the cabinet.

However he said the method would apply not just to the Attorney General’s advice, but to every piece of legal counsel given to the government during the EU negotiations.

He told MPs: “Some of it may undoubtedly contain confidential material which if put in the public domain could well jeopardise the national interest.”

The chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee said this was like the government being made to “disclose the name of agents working for MI5 and MI6”, adding the system was “open to abuse”.

Back in the Commons, Nigel Dodds, of the DUP, praises the attorney general for telling “the unvarnished truth” in his “devastating commentary” yesterday.

Apparently Mr Cox said the deal was “unattractive, unsatisfactory, undesirable” in his speech. Parliament voted for this advice to be published – and the government cannot refuse to do so just because it wishes otherwise, Mr Dodds says.

The government “must respect the will of parliament and cannot just set it aside”, he says.

Solicitor General Robert Buckland said the government had “nothing to hide” amid a row over the publication of the full legal guidance given to ministers about the Brexit deal.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “There’s nothing to hide because the government has already published its legal position in full yesterday, the attorney general answered questions for two-and-a-half hours.

“I don’t know what could be more full and frank in all honesty – there is nothing here now, other than a rather tawdry sideshow that is stopping us from getting on with debating the real issues about Brexit.”

He added: “If the attorney general had come to parliament with the 10 commandments yesterday, that wouldn’t have been enough: this is all a smokescreen and a diversion from actually what we should be talking about, which is what the public want to hear.”

The PM told Cabinet that the publication of the document setting out the legal position on Monday and the Attorney General’s appearance in the Commons “are by themselves extraordinary steps for any government to take”.

Theresa May’s official spokesman said the government’s amendment to the contempt motion would allow the privileges committee to look at the issue and “consider the national interest arguments for not releasing the legal advice alongside the government’s duty to parliament”.

On the article 50 case, her spokesman said “this is not a final judgment” and “it does nothing in any event to change the clear position of the government that article 50 is not going to be revoked”.

Jumping out of the debate for a moment – Independent political editor Joe Watts has been to the lobby briefing with No10.

HMRC is contacting 145,000 UK export businesses to make sure they have the right kind of registration documents as they step up ‘no deal’ preparations.

The decision was announced at cabinet this morning, at which ministers also discussed the decision not to publish the full legal advice relating to Theresa May’s Brexit plan.

The PM’s spokesman said the government would make available a sum in the “low millions” to ensure all of the business that would need an EORI number if no deal comes through, are contacted individually and get one.

“It’s entirely in keeping with taking the appropriate steps at the appropriate moment,” he said. The appropriate moment at this point, being one in which the PM’s deal looks increasingly under threat.

The front bench is preparing for a late night tonight, with the contempt motion debate about to begin, potentially continuing until 7pm.

Then the business motion relating to the broader debate on May’s deal could potentially take another two hours, not to mention Dominic Grieve’s amendment to it which is designed to allow the Commons to stop a no-deal withdrawal.

That’s all before before the actual debate on the withdrawal agreement – potentially lasting a further eight hours.

Andrea Leadsom says the government considers the “spirit and intention” of the promise made in November has been fulfilled. Huge shouts from MPs at this comment.

She “completely rejects” any suggestion Mr Cox has treated parliament with “anything but respect”. As the previous tweet says, Ms Leadsom is clearly conflating contempt with acting in a contemptuous manner. Contempt is a specific charge.

She says: “I appeal to members of this House that they refer this to the committee, in line with parliamentary procedures.”

It looks like the government is planning to stand firm.

Tory MP Simon Hoare intervenes, saying opposition MPs had signed this motion by lunchtime yesterday – therefore they clearly had no interest in the attorney general’s speech last night.

Andrea Leadsom says legal officers must be protected to allow government to function properly. She says the House could put the lives of troops in danger or compromise national security by demanding documents through this arcane procedure, known as a humble address.

Ken Clarke, the Tory ex-chancellor, intervenes too. He says there is a sensible solution to overcome the party-political dispute by giving a briefing to opposition leaders on privy council terms.

Leadsom thanks him but says that Labour want all information released into the public domain without thought to the consequences.

This motion would compromise the ability of good government, she said. It is not in the interest of members or the national interest, she says.

Leadsom says: “What we break now may be very difficult to fix later.”

Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, is now speaking for the government. She has tabled a motion to thwart the efforts, by forcing the matter to go before the privileges committee – ie kicking it into the long grass.

She says the government has provided a lengthy commentary on the detailed legal position on the Brexit deal and the attorney general has promised to answer any questions MPs have.

“I would urge the house to exercise caution in this matter,” she says. “There is no dispute about the wording of the withdrawal agreement.”

She says no one could argue that the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, has done anything but treat the House with respect.

The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.

Source: BBC