Could the government have avoided this afternoon’s contempt motion? MPs have voted in favour of holding ministers in contempt of parliament for refusing to publish the Brexit legal advice, and the simple argument is that the only way to avoid this whole debacle would have been to publish the advice. This is, after all, what the Commons voted for, yet ministers chose instead to publish a summary.
But a number of the speeches today hinted at a problem that goes far deeper than just the government ignoring the humble address demanding the publication. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ken Clarke, for instance, have both pointed to the way the government has been ignoring the will of Parliament more generally, even though both have acknowledged the concerns of ministers about some of the implications of being forced to publish such advice. This strategy of ignoring backbench motions is one that the whips have adopted ever since the snap election result as a means of taking the air out of government defeats. It displeased parliamentarians when the tactic was first deployed, and has led to MPs from a range of political standpoints uniting to pressure ministers to respond to Opposition Day votes rather than pretending that they didn’t happen because the Tories were ordered to abstain.
Rees-Mogg told his fellow MPs that he would be supporting the government’s amendment which moves the question to the privileges committee, but that the humble address demanding the publication must be obeyed, even if there were valid arguments against it being passed back in November. Similarly, Ken Clarke argued that this sort of problem would have been resolved through the ‘usual channels’ (this is the government and opposition whips discussing compromises behind the scenes, which regularly happens), but also agreed with Rees-Mogg’s arguments about the need for the government to comply with a humble address motion.
A mistake that whips in every government make from time to time is to assume that trying to ride roughshod over Parliament will work. It rarely does, whether on matters as large as Brexit or as niche as the election of the Speaker. Every time ministers try to pull a fast one on Parliament, they end up at the receiving end of some very irritated backbenchers who want to defend the right of the Commons to assert itself, regardless of the issue at stake. That’s why MPs like Rees-Mogg, Clarke and Dominic Grieve are agreeing with one another. It’s also why the whips are going to struggle to play any clever games over the next few days and weeks because MPs are now on high alert.