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Government in a pickle over contempt proceedings

4 December 2018

10:00 AM

4 December 2018

10:00 AM

It’s just another day in office for Theresa May’s shaky government. Today MPs will enjoy the first of many days of debate over the seemingly doomed EU withdrawal agreement but before they get to that ministers must try and avoid being found in contempt of Parliament.

After the government refused to publish the full legal advice on May’s Brexit deal (following an Opposition Day debate calling for it), Attorney General Geoffrey Cox appeared in the Chamber in a bid to satisfy MPs by answering questions on the agreement. Although Cox did manage to charm a number of attendees his attendance was not enough to silence Opposition demands.


This lunchtime MPs will now hold an emergency debate on whether ministers are in contempt of parliament for refusing to release the advice. MPs will then vote on a cross-party motion (backed by the DUP who are keen to show that May has no majority without them) which states that ministers are in contempt of Parliament. This is an ancient offence which gets little airing these days. Were the motion to pass, we could see a minister – most likely Cox or David Lidington – kicked out of Parliament for several days meaning they could miss that all important vote. It’s likely a decision on punishment would be referred to the privileges committee – with three Tory MPs and three Labour MPs – where the Labour chairwoman could get the casting vote.

In their defence, government sources maintain that it is against the national interest to publish a document which lays out in technical detail every weakness the UK has ahead of the second half of the negotiations. So, who is in the right? The problem for the government is that the majority of those calling for the document to be published don’t want the UK to get to the second half of the negotiations if it means backing this agreement. Therefore the argument has little merit for May’s Brexit deal opponents. It’s going to be a long day, again.


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