U.K. government loses contempt vote over Brexit legal advice
Opposition parties angry that only an outline of legal basis for Brexit deal was released
Britain's Parliament dealt Prime Minister Theresa May's government two bruising defeats on Tuesday, even before lawmakers began an epic debate that will decide the fate of May's European Union divorce deal — and of her political career.
Opening five days of debate on the Brexit deal, May told Parliament that the British people had voted in 2016 to leave the EU, and it was the "duty of this Parliament to deliver on the result" of the referendum.
Despite her entreaties, the government appeared to be on a collision course with an increasingly assertive Parliament over the next steps in the U.K.'s exit.
Minutes before May rose to speak, lawmakers delivered a historic rebuke, finding her Conservative government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish the full advice it had received from the country's top law officer about the proposed terms of Brexit.
The reprimand, by 311 votes to 293, marks the first time a British government has been found in contempt of Parliament.
Labour Party Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer called the contempt finding "a badge of shame" for the government.
Opposition parties and the small Northern Irish party that props up May's minority government were furious that it only provided an outline of the legal basis for its Brexit deal after Parliament voted to be given the full advice.
The government said that in light of Tuesday's vote, it would publish the full advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on Wednesday.
In another sign of the government's weakness, lawmakers also passed an amendment giving Parliament more say over the government's next steps if the divorce deal is rejected in a vote on Dec. 11.
Victories for opposition
Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said the opposition wanted to use "every opportunity they have to show the instability of the government."
So many lawmakers — from May's own Conservatives as well as from the opposition parties — have spoken out against the deal that the odds look stacked against her winning in the upcoming vote.
Haddon said the contempt motion was a "show of force" which could foreshadow both the final vote on the deal and the various amendments lawmakers are trying to attach to it.
Cox gave Parliament an outline of his legal advice to the government on Monday.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, said on Tuesday that releasing the full advice would set a dangerous precedent.
She said the government, which had sought to slow down the process by referring the issue to Parliament's committee of privileges, had fulfilled the spirit of the order to publish.
The government said after the vote that it would now publish the full advice.
Advice on exiting Brexit
The developments come after the European Union's highest court advised Tuesday that Britain can unilaterally change its mind about leaving the European Union, boosting hopes among to pro-EU campaigners in the U.K. that Brexit can be stopped.
May's government insists it will never reverse the decision to leave, but May faces a tough battle to win backing in Parliament before lawmakers vote next week on whether to accept or reject the divorce agreement negotiated with the bloc. Defeat would leave the U.K. facing a chaotic "no deal" Brexit and could topple the prime minister, her government, or both.
"The numbers in the Houses of Parliament look pretty formidable for Theresa May," said Alan Wager, a research associate at think-tank U.K. in a Changing Europe. "Over 100 Conservative MPs have said they are not going to back the deal, the Labour Party have said they are not going to back the deal. So it looks like the deal won't pass next week."
Advocate General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona told the European Court of Justice that a decision by the British government to change its mind about invoking Article 50 would be legally valid. The advice of the advocate general is often, but not always, followed by the full court.
The court is assessing the issue under an accelerated procedure, since Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29. The final verdict is expected within weeks.
Britain voted in 2016 to leave the 28-nation bloc and invoked Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, triggering a two-year exit process. Article 50 is scant on details — largely because the idea of any country leaving the bloc was considered unlikely — so a group of Scottish legislators asked the courts to rule on whether the U.K. can pull out of the withdrawal procedure on its own.
The EU's governing commission and council oppose unilateral revocation, arguing it requires unanimous agreement of the 27 remaining members of the bloc.
The court's advocate general said Article 50 "allows the unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU."
The advice bolstered anti-Brexit campaigners, who hope the decision to leave can be reversed.