Tuesday 17 September 2019

Brexit legal advice to be published after ministers found in contempt of parliament

  • Theresa May insists Brexit backstop is not a trap for the UK
  • Government suffers three Commons defeats before Brexit debate kicks off
  • The crucial December 11 vote is likely to decide the shape of Brexit
Theresa May. Photo: PA
Theresa May. Photo: PA
Independent.ie Business Desk

Independent.ie Business Desk

Theresa May's government was found in contempt of parliament on Tuesday for refusing to release its full legal advice on Brexit, underlining the depth of opposition among lawmakers to her deal on leaving the European Union.

The row threatened to overshadow the start of five days of debate in parliament on May's Brexit deal ahead of a crucial vote on December 11, when legislators will be asked to approve it.

Theresa May's Government suffered three humiliating Commons defeats in little more than an hour as she battled to keep her Brexit plans on track.

Mrs May also insisted at the start of the debate that the Brexit backstop was not a trap for Britain, claiming it gives the UK "important benefits of access to the EU's market without many of the obligations".

Meanwhile, opposition parties and the DUP are furious that it only provided an outline of the legal basis for its Brexit deal after parliament voted to be given the full advice.

They put forward a motion, which was backed by 311-293 in a vote on Tuesday, that found ministers in contempt of parliament and ordered the immediate publication of the advice.

"Today's finding of contempt is a badge of shame for this government. It is of huge constitutional and political significance," Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour Party's Brexit spokesman, said after the vote.

"Never before has the House of Commons found ministers in contempt of parliament."

The sanctions ultimately available include suspending a lawmaker, most likely Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. It was not clear whether the opposition parties would now push for that.

Such punishment is usually reserved for backbench lawmakers guilty of individual wrongdoing. In reality, Tuesday's vote was about putting pressure on a weakened government.

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 the December 11 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.

Read more: Explainer: The big Brexit vote - who's involved? when it takes place? what happens next?

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 this had been a "full and frank exposition", and 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.

Earlier, sterling had steadied after a senior European Union legal adviser said Britain could unilaterally withdraw its Brexit notice, easing some concern among investors about Britain crashing out of the bloc in March without a deal.

The advice from a European Court of Justice advocate general is non-binding but the prospect of a route out of the Brexit process cheered the market, even as Prime Minister Theresa May pressed ahead with plans for a parliamentary debate on her divorce deal with the EU.

"Advocate General (Manuel) Campos Sanchez-Bordona proposes that the Court of Justice should declare that Article 50 ... allows the unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU," the ECJ, the bloc's highest court, said.

"That possibility continues to exist until such time as the withdrawal agreement is formally concluded," it said in a statement.

While the advocate general's opinions are not binding, the court tends to follow them in its final rulings. It was not know when it would announce its decision.

The pound had spiked to a day's high of $1.2840 versus a broadly weak dollar before relinquishing its gains to trade flat at $1.2734. Against the euro it rose 0.1pc at 1640 GMT to 89.17 pence.

The growing chance of averting Brexit altogether -- potentially via a second referendum -- has led some investors to start pricing out the prospect of a damaging "no deal" departure from the EU, analysts said, lifting sterling.

But May's spokesman told reporters: "It does nothing in any event to change the clear position of the government that Article 50 is not going to be revoked."

Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29, 2019, and May has agreed on an exit pact and an outline of the future EU-British ties with the other 27 EU states. But the proposed accord must yet be backed in the British parliament, where it faces stiff opposition.

The case was brought before the ECJ by Scottish politicians opposed to Brexit. They hope that if the court rules in their favour, it would pave the way for a potential second referendum, giving voters the option to remain in the EU.

"The decision is one that the UK can make unilaterally - without needed the consent of the other (EU) member states. That puts the decision about our future back into the hands of our own elected representatives," said Jo Maugham, one of the lawyers involved in the case.

The crucial December 11 vote is likely to decide the shape of Brexit. If, against the odds, May wins, Britain will leave the EU on March 29 on the terms she negotiated with Brussels - its biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years.

If she loses, May could call for a second vote on the deal. But defeat would increase the chances of a "no-deal" exit, which could mean chaos for Britain's economy and businesses, and put May under fierce pressure to resign.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney denied accusations of scaremongering after the bank said last week that, under a worst-case Brexit, Britain could suffer greater damage to its economy than during the financial crisis of 2008.


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