Attorney General faces SUSPENSION as MPs vote on Brexit advice

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox could be SUSPENDED as MPs launch historic bid to hold May’s government in contempt of Parliament and force it to FINALLY release full Brexit legal advice

  • Speaker made the comments in response to demands from Labour and the DUP
  • Had complained summary legal advice didn’t comply with Commons resolution 
  • He said that a motion finding government in contempt would be read tomorrow 
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Theresa May faces a bitter test of strength with MPs today as they mount an historic bid to force release of legal advice on her Brexit deal.

The House of Commons will vote on a contempt motion that could plunge the PM’s government further into chaos.

The showdown comes after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox again dismissed demands to publish his private legal opinion to the Cabinet – and effectively dared MPs to suspend him.

In extraordinary scenes in the chamber last night, Speaker John Bercow agreed there was an ‘arguable case that a contempt has been committed’ after Tory Eurosceptics, Labour, the DUP, the SNP and Lib Dems joined forces.

The MPs complained that the summary legal advice released by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox did not comply with a Commons resolution agreed last month.

The constitutional clash between the House and the government is thought to be unprecedented in modern times. 

Ministers insist legal confidentiality is an important point of principle and revealing the material would hurt the national interest. Instead they published a 40-plus page assessment of the package thrashed out with Brussels. 

But if the motion is passed today, the pressure to issue the full advice could become unbearable. 

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (pictured in the Commons tonight) admitted the UK cannot unilaterally exit the Irish border backstop – prompting claim the Brexit divorce is a ‘trap’ 

John Bercow (pictured in the Commons today) made the comments in response to demands from Labour, the DUP and four other opposition parties

Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, DUP, Plaid and Green politicians wrote to the Speaker tonight (pictured) calling for the start of proceedings for contempt 

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Mr Cox, who is the Government’s chief legal adviser, had staunchly defended the decision – telling MPs ‘there is nothing to see here’.

The Speaker however, in a statement to the Commons, said he was ‘satisfied’ the matter should be put before MPs to consider on Tuesday morning.

He said: ‘The letter that I received from the members mentioned at the start of this statement asks me to give precedence to a motion relating to privilege in relation to the failure of ministers to comply with the terms of the resolution of the House of the 13 November.’

Mr Bercow stopped his statement to scold Government chief whip Julian Smith, who was talking to ministers on the frontbench, saying: ‘It would seem courteous if he could just hold off for a moment and allow me to make the statement that would appear to show perhaps a proper politeness.’

How does the Commons contempt process work? 

Under Commons rules, the Speaker decides whether to allow a contempt motion to go before the House.

If he does and the vote is carried, MPs could table another motion to impose a punishment, potentially suspension from the House.

Alternatively the issue could be referred to the Committee of Privileges for detailed consideration.

The committee would then recommend a suitable sanction for the Commons to sign off.

That is likely to take considerably longer than the week available before MPs vote on the PM’s Brexit deal. 

In theory, the most severe penalty is expulsion from the House, although the prospects of that happening would appear remote.

There were only three expulsions in the 20th Century, with the last one in 1954. Two of them involved serious criminal convictions, and the third was for lying to a committee and allegedly taking bribes.  

However any finding against the Government would be potentially highly damaging for Mrs May at a time when she is at her most vulnerable politically.  

He added: ‘I have considered the matter carefully and I am satisfied that there is an arguable case that a contempt has been committed.

‘I’m therefore giving precedence for a motion to be tabled tonight before the House rises and to be taken as first business tomorrow.’

Mr Bercow said it was ‘entirely for the House to decide on that motion’.

The Attorney General earlier said that he ‘fully accepts’ MPs may impose a sanction against him or the Government for contempt of Parliament over Brexit legal advice.

He said: ‘The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will.

‘It can bring a motion of contempt and seek to have that motion passed and seek to impose through the committee, or whichever way it is appropriately done, to impose a sanction. I fully accept that.

‘I don’t set myself up contrary to the House, I simply say that I cannot compromise the public interest.’

Mr Cox had asked MPs to suppose the advice included details on relationships with foreign states and arguments that might be deployed in the future, noting: ‘Would it be right for the Attorney General, regardless of the harm to the public interest, to divulge his opinion.

‘I say it wouldn’t.’

Mr Cox said it would be difficult to ensure information would be redacted, adding: ‘I cannot take a step that I firmly and truly believe would be contrary to the public interest’.

He went on: ‘I ask the House to understand that it is only that consideration that is motivating me and this Government in declining at this stage to break the convention that applies to both sides of the House when they are in government.

‘There is nothing to see here.’

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer (see on Sophie Ridge on Sunday) said Attorney General Geoffrey Cox had failed to follow the orders of Parliament to publish his full legal advice

The PM (pictured in the Commons today) fought to limit the information disclosed about the legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox 

Boris Johnson has joined condemnation of the refusal, saying it was a ‘scandal’ and pointing out that Mrs May previously called for advice on the Iraq War to be released

The DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson underlined the threat in a tweet today

What is in the summary of legal advice on the Brexit deal?

  • The Northern Ireland backstop lasts indefinitely ‘unless and until it is superseded’ by ‘alternative arrangements’. 
  • Agreement on ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border is only possible by joint UK-EU agreement.
  • With no agreement, the UK must be able to show ‘clear evidence’ the EU is failing to negotiate in good faith to get a ruling in its favour.
  • The UK cannot unilaterally terminate the divorce treaty.
  • If transition is extended, the UK will have to pay an ‘appropriate’ amount more into the EU budget. This could run to billions.
  • During the transition period, the EU can choose to exclude the UK from ‘security-related sensitive information’ .
  • During the transition period, the UK must accept all new EU laws with no say on writing them.  

In his statement to MPs earlier today, Mr Cox insisted the backstop part of the divorce was ‘expressly agreed not to be intended to establish a permanent relationship but to be temporary’.

He said the Article 50 process did not provide a legal basis for a permanent arrangement.

But ‘if the protocol were to come into force, it would continue to apply in international law unless and until it was superseded by the intended subsequent agreement’ which met the goals of avoiding a hard border and protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

‘There is therefore no unilateral right for either party to terminate this arrangement. This means that if no superseding agreement can be reached within the implementation period, the protocol would be activated and in international law would subsist, even if negotiations had broken down.

‘How likely that is to happen is a political question, to which the answer will no doubt depend partly on the extent to which it is in either party’s interests to remain indefinitely within its arrangements.’ 

The legal paper gives a more detailed explanation of the ‘best endeavours’ provision in the Withdrawal Agreement. The deal sets out that if the backstop were to come into force, there will be a review process for the UK to break out.

Could vote on Brexit deal be delayed to save May’s skin?  

As pressure grows on the PM, there are claims next week’s Brexit vote could be shelved.

Some Tory whips think a delay could help Theresa May to go back to the EU to renegotiate her deal to avoid a defeat in the Commons.

Under the plan, if the situation was still looking dire at the end of this week the Government would abandon the vote.

Mrs May could then attempt to reopen talks at a summit in Brussels. 

However, Sajid Javid – who was said to be one of the minister who back the idea – dismissed it today.

And Downing Street insisted the vote will go ahead as planned.  

The summary argues that the ‘obligation to negotiate in good faith with a view to concluding agreements is a well-recognised concept in international law’. 

‘Relevant precedents indicate that such obligations require the parties to conduct negotiations in a meaningful way, contemplate modifications to their respective positions and pay reasonable regard to each other’s interests,’ it says. 

But the document adds: ‘A tribunal would only find a breach of the duty of good faith if there was a clear basis for doing so.’ 

Earlier Mrs May’s chief Brexit adviser told MPs that the Northern Ireland border backstop was a ‘slightly uncomfortable necessity’ for both the UK and the European Union.

The fallback plan agreed with Brussels was ‘not the future relationship that either the UK or the EU wants to have with one another’, Olly Robbins told the Exiting the European Union Committee.

He said: ‘It is an uncomfortable position for both sides and the reality … is that there is not a withdrawal agreement without a backstop.

‘That reflects also, as I’ve said to this committee before, ministers’ commitments to Northern Ireland and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, rather than being something imposed upon us.

‘So, it is a necessity and a slightly uncomfortable necessity for both sides.’ 

The Prime Minister’s chief Brexit adviser Oliver Robbins (pictured left today)  admitted the deal’s hugely controversial backstop is ‘uncomfortable but necessary’ for the UK, but he insisted a deal would not be done without one. His warning was repeated by new Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (pictured right today) who said the EU would not allow a deal without a Plan B

Oil tycoon says Theresa May’s Brexit deal is ‘workable’ 

Leading businessman Sir Ian Wood has said Theresa May’s Brexit deal is ‘workable’ and is better than the current situation with Europe.

He said that the UK cannot afford to leave without a deal and that the plan now needs to ‘move ahead.’

The businessman said that Brexit could also bring benefits to Scottish fishing.

Sir Ian, who made his name developing the Wood Group into a global oilfield services company, said that dealing with Brexit had been an ‘extraordinarily difficult task.’

He told BBC Good Morning Scotland: ‘There is not a solution which anyone, or I suspect even more than 50% of people, would really say ‘that’s a really good solution’.

‘There are two extremes and all kinds of ranges in between.

‘I frankly think we do need to move ahead. We cannot afford to have no outcome.

‘It would be bad for Europe and it would be bad for the UK and it would take a long time to work our way through that and frankly I think the proposal that’s on the table, I think it is workable, I think it is better than we have, we’re out of Common Market membership but we’re retaining some of the advantages so I think it’s better than we have, and I think it’s a workable proposal.’

Asked if the Government had drafted a clause for the Withdrawal Agreement which would have allowed the UK to opt out of the backstop unilaterally, Mr Robbins said: ‘Ministers asked us to look at a whole range of options for how to bring the backstop to an end, and so we did.

‘And the Prime Minister and other ministers tested some of those out on European partners.

‘But, what we went into the negotiation with in the end was a text that delivered the termination clause very much as it is laid out there.’

The UK faces making additional payments to Brussels if the Brexit implementation period is extended, the Government’s Brexit legal advice also said.

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, it is due to run until the end of December 2020 but can be extended by up to two years if both sides agree.

The advice says that discussions on any extension would involve ‘reaching further agreement on the UK’s financial contribution’.

Labour’s Chris Bryant, a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, attacked the paper’s release when MPs had demanded to see the full legal advice given to ministers by Mr Cox.

He said: ‘The House of Commons was very clear that the full legal advice to the Cabinet should be supplied to Members of Parliament.

‘The refusal of the Government to comply sends a very clear message about the Brexit deal – that it is bad for Britain, satisfies nobody and will weaken our economy and our voice in the world.’ 

Meanwhile, demands for a second referendum are mounting after the dramatic resignation of universities minister Sam Gyimah over the weekend.

Senior Labour figures including shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer and deputy leader Tom Watson are thought to be ramping up pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to back a fresh national ballot. 

Environment Secretary Michael Gove admitted yesterday that a referendum was a potential outcome if Mrs May loses, but said it would ‘rip the social fabric of the country’. He also insisted Leave would win by a bigger margin than in 2016.

MPs across Parliament have angrily accused ministers of ignoring the will of the House by only releasing a ‘full reasoned political statement’ on the legal position.

It follows a binding Commons vote last month requiring the Government to lay before Parliament ‘any legal advice in full’ – including that given by the Attorney General – relating to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Sir Keir and the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds (pictured) could sign a letter asking the Speaker to allow a motion ‘that the Government has held Parliament in contempt’

Commons legal assessment highlights doubt on ‘backstop’ 

House of Commons lawyers have raised fresh questions about the Irish border backstop in Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

An internal assessment by the House’s EU legislation team highlights that the customs arrangements would be a ‘practical barrier to the UK entering separate trade agreements on goods with third countries’. 

It also suggests the Joint Committee to arbitrate over the Withdrawal Agreement could put Britain at a ‘practical disadvantage’.

‘If the Joint Committee is unable to reach a decision, in some circumstances, that will block next steps,’ the note says.

‘The party that wants those next steps to occur, will then be at a practical disadvantage. 

‘By way of example, i) the Joint Committee sets the limits of state aid that can be authorised by the UK for agriculture. If limits are not agreed, state aid may not be authorised.’ 

Downing Street has acknowledged that the backstop would hamper trade deals on goods, but argues that the EU would also be unhappy to keep the arrangements indefinitely.

The PM’s aides insist the country would still be able to do deals on services.

Ministers chose not to oppose the motion – tabled by Labour under an arcane procedure known as the humble address – as they feared a damaging Commons defeat.

Mr Cox is said to have warned the UK could be tied to the EU customs union ‘indefinitely’ through the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’.

The Sunday Times said in a letter sent last month to Cabinet ministers, he advised the only way out of the backstop – designed to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic – once it was invoked was to sign a new trade deal, a process which could take years.

‘The protocol would endure indefinitely,’ he apparently wrote.

The letter was said to be so sensitive that ministers were given numbered copies to read which they were not allowed to take from the room afterwards. 

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab – who quit last month over the withdrawal agreement – said the legal position was clear.

‘The backstop will last indefinitely until it is superseded by the treaty setting out our future relationship, unless the EU allows us to exit,’ he told The Sunday Times.

‘The EU has a clear veto, even if the future negotiations stretch on for many years, or even if they break down and there is no realistic likelihood of us reaching agreement.

‘That’s my view as a former international lawyer, but it is consistent if not identical with all of the formal advice I received.’  

May jokes Corbyn’s Brexit TV debate plan would mean she misses STRICTLY   

Theresa May joked Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit TV debate plan would mean she misses Strictly Come Dancing – just days after the Labour called for the showdown to be early enough he could watch the I’m a Celebrity final.

The PM’s jibe at Mr Corbyn today after Downing Street accused the Labour leader of ‘running scared’ of a head to head clash.

Both leaders have backed a debate on Sunday night – two days before the crunch vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal in the Commons – but failed to agree on format.

Theresa May (pictured today on This Morning) joked Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit TV debate plan would mean she misses Strictly Come Dancing – just days after the Labour called for the showdown to be early enough he could watch the I’m a Celebrity final

The BBC is planning to screen a Brexit showdown between Theresa May and Mr Corbyn (pictured last week on This Morning) on Sunday – two days before the crucial Commons vote on December 11

Mrs May wants the debate on BBC One and has accepted the broadcaster’s idea of a head-to-head debate alongside questions from a panel.

Mr Corbyn had backed an ITV plan of a simple one-on-one contest. He has accepted this could be on the BBC but wants the simpler format.

There are growing doubts as to whether the debate would take place at all amid continued wrangling over the format. 

Mrs May told This Morning she was ‘keen’ to take part in a debate.

She said: ‘There are discussions about where exactly it is going to be.

‘There are variations on this. I think he said he wanted to be on ITV so he could watch the final of I’m a Celebrity.

‘I think his proposed time means I would miss Strictly – I hate to say it on ITV but I’m a bit of a Strictly fan.’ 

‘Leave won!’ Susanna Reid and Piers Morgan grill Tony Blair on Brexit referendum call 

Tony Blair faced a fiery grilling today as he was challenged over why he is calling for another Brexit referendum just two years after the historic vote.

The ex-PM is stepping up his campaign for a so-called People’s Vote and lashed Theresa May’s deal for ‘yielding’ too much to Brussels. 

Appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he said another referendum should be held which gives Britons a choice between staying in the EU or having a Boris Johnson-style hard Brexit.

But presenters Susanna Reid and Piers Morgan quizzed him over why Remain should even be on the ballot two years after the side lost.

Tony Blair (pictured on GMB today) stepped up his campaign for a second Brexit referendum – and said Theresa May’s deal should not be an option on another ballot

In a heated exchange with the former Labour leader, Susanna said: ‘Why should Remain even be an option on the second referendum? Why isn’t it a choice between May’s deal and an alternative Brexit?

‘Because the whole Remain camp didn’t win that campaign. Why should we re-run that part of the referendum? Why would Brexiteers – people who voted to leave , not feel utterly infuriated that is being re-run?’ 

Mr Blair hit back, saying: ‘I think if you had a referendum and you excluded the possibility of remaining I think your 16-odd million people who voted Remain would feel a great sense of disillusion if they weren’t able to make their case again.’

Piers also chimed in asking: ‘Isn’t that what happens when you lose?’ 

Mr Blair went on: ‘When you lose but the other side are as divided as to what form of Brexit is correct or not the only sensible way is to put it back to people and say, you have had your 30 months of experience, do you want to stay?’

He said there is also a ‘good chance’ Brussels would give the UK more concessions to the UK.   

Is May’s deal already sunk? 100 Tories, the DUP and Labour have come out against – leaving her staring at defeat on December 11

Theresa May’s task of getting her Brexit deal past the House of Commons is looking near-impossible as opposition mounts.

The ‘meaningful vote’ promised to MPs will happen on December 11 and is the single biggest hurdle to the Brexit deal happening – as well as being the key to Mrs May’ fate as PM.

But despite opinion polls suggesting the public might be coming round to her deal, there is little sign of a shift among politicians.

Remainers have been stepping up calls for a second referendum in the wake of Sam Gyimah’s resignation as universities minister over the weekend – while Brexiteers including Boris Johnson have accused Mrs May of betrayal.   

Mrs May needs at least 318 votes in the Commons if all 650 MPs turns up – but can probably only be confident of around 230 votes.

The number is less than half because the four Speakers, 7 Sinn Fein MPs and four tellers will not take part.

The situation looks grim for Mrs May and her whips: now the deal has been published, over 100 of her own MPs and the 10 DUP MPs have publicly stated they will join the Opposition parties in voting No.

This means the PM could have as few as 225 votes in her corner – leaving 410 votes on the other side, a landslide majority 185.

This is how the House of Commons might break down:

Mrs May needs at least 318 votes in the Commons if all 650 MPs turns up – but can probably only be confident of around 230 votes.

Mrs May needs at least 318 votes in the Commons if all 650 MPs turns up – but can probably only be confident of around 230 votes.

The Government (plus various hangers-on)

Who are they: All members of the Government are the so-called ‘payroll’ vote and are obliged to follow the whips orders or resign. It includes the Cabinet, all junior ministers, the whips and unpaid parliamentary aides.

There are also a dozen Tory party ‘vice-chairs and 17 MPs appointed by the PM to be ‘trade envoys’.

How many of them are there? 178.

What do they want? For the Prime Minister to survive, get her deal and reach exit day with the minimum of fuss.

Many junior ministers want promotion while many of the Cabinet want to be in a position to take the top job when Mrs May goes.

How will they vote? With the Prime Minister.

European Research Group Brexiteers demanding a No Confidence Vote

Who are they: The most hard line of the Brexiteers, they launched a coup against Mrs May after seeing the divorce. Led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker.

How many of them are there: 26

What do they want: The removal of Mrs May and a ‘proper Brexit’. Probably no deal now, with hopes for a Canada-style deal later.

How will they vote: Against the Prime Minister.

Other Brexiteers in the ERG

Who are they: There is a large block of Brexiteer Tory MPs who hate the deal but have so far stopped short of moving to remove Mrs May – believing that can destroy the deal instead. They include ex Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and ex minister Owen Paterson.

Ex ministers like Boris Johnson and David Davis are also in this group – they probably want to replace Mrs May but have not publicly moved against her.

How many of them are there? Around 50.

What do they want? The ERG has said Mrs May should abandon her plans for a unique trade deal and instead negotiate a ‘Canada plus plus plus’ deal.

This is based on a trade deal signed between the EU and Canada in August 2014 that eliminated 98 per cent of tariffs and taxes charged on goods shipped across the Atlantic.

The EU has long said it would be happy to do a deal based on Canada – but warn it would only work for Great Britain and not Northern Ireland.

How will they vote: Against the Prime Minister.

Remain including the People’s Vote supporters

Who are they: Tory MPs who believe the deal is just not good enough for Britain. They include the group of unrepentant Remainers who want a new referendum like Anna Soubry and ex-ministers who quit over the deal including Jo Johnson and Phillip Lee.

How many of them are there: Maybe around 10.

What do they want? To stop Brexit. Some want a new referendum, some think Parliament should step up and say no.

A new referendum would take about six months from start to finish and they group wants Remain as an option on the ballot paper, probably with Mrs May’s deal as the alternative.

How will they vote? Against the Prime Minister.

Moderates in the Brexit Delivery Group (BDG) and other Loyalists

Who are they? A newer group, the BDG counts members from across the Brexit divide inside the Tory Party. It includes former minister Nick Boles and MPs including Remainer Simon Hart and Brexiteer Andrew Percy.

There are also lots of unaligned Tory MPs who are desperate to talk about anything else.

How many of them are there? Based on public declarations, about 48 MPs have either said nothing or backed the deal.

What do they want? The BDG prioritises delivering on Brexit and getting to exit day on March 29, 2019, without destroying the Tory Party or the Government. If the PM gets a deal the group will probably vote for it.

It is less interested in the exact form of the deal but many in it have said Mrs May’s Chequers plan will not work.

Mr Boles has set out a proposal for Britain to stay in the European Economic Area (EEA) until a free trade deal be negotiated – effectively to leave the EU but stay in close orbit as a member of the single market.

How will they vote? With the Prime Minister.


Who are they? The Northern Ireland Party signed up to a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Conservative Party to prop up the Government.

They are Unionist and say Brexit is good but must not carve Northern Ireland out of the Union.

How many of them are there? 10.

What do they want? A Brexit deal that protects Northern Ireland inside the UK.

How will they vote? Against the Prime Minister on the grounds they believe the deal breaches the red line of a border in the Irish Sea.

Labour Loyalists

Who are they? Labour MPs who are loyal to Jeremy Corbyn and willing to follow his whipping orders.

How many of them are there? Up to 250 MPs depending on exactly what Mr Corbyn orders them to do.

What do they want? Labour policy is to demand a general election and if the Government refuses, ‘all options are on the table’, including a second referendum.

Labour insists it wants a ‘jobs first Brexit’ that includes a permanent customs union with the EU. It says it is ready to restart negotiations with the EU with a short extension to the Article 50 process.

The party says Mrs May’s deal fails its six tests for being acceptable.

How will they vote? Against the Prime Minister’s current deal.

Labour Rebels

Who are they? A mix of MPs totally opposed to Mr Corbyn’s leadership, some Labour Leave supporters who want a deal and some MPs who think any deal will do at this point.

How many of them are there? Maybe 10 to 20 MPs but this group is diminishing fast – at least for the first vote on the deal.

What do they want? An orderly Brexit and to spite Mr Corbyn.

How will they vote? With the Prime Minister.

Other Opposition parties

Who are they? The SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green Caroline Lucas and assorted independents.

How many of them are there? About 60 MPs.

How will they vote? Mostly against the Prime Minister – though two of the independents are suspended Tories and two are Brexiteer former Labour MPs. 


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