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The Government Has Been Found In Contempt Of Parliament For Not Releasing Its Brexit Legal Advice

Theresa May will now have to publish her Brexit deal legal advice in full.

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Attorney general Geoffrey Cox
Daniel Leal-olivas / AFP / Getty Images

Attorney general Geoffrey Cox

Theresa May has been plunged into a historic constitutional row after her government was found in contempt of parliament for failing to release its full legal advice on the Brexit deal.

In a crunch decision on Tuesday afternoon, parliament voted 311–293 in favour of a motion brought by the opposition parties to find ministers in contempt.

Responding to the defeat, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom confirmed the government will now publish the legal advice on the Brexit deal in full.

Today’s motion was tabled after the government refused to disclose the advice shown to the cabinet, despite parliament ordering it to do so last month. BuzzFeed News previously revealed that the private advice gave a "very stark" assessment of the deal.

The attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, yesterday released a legal position paper summarising his advice but insisted it was not “in the national interest” to release it in full.

Labour, the DUP, and other opposition parties had argued that the government did not contest last month’s vote and so was in contempt for refusing to abide by a binding motion of the House.

Today’s vote leaves the PM facing the unprecedented situation of having a member of her government found in contempt of parliament.

One of May's senior ministers, most likely Cox or her de facto deputy David Lidington, could be sanctioned.

Being held in contempt means the minister has been found to have obstructed or impeded the work of parliament. Potential punishments include the minister being suspended from the House of Commons.

Labour's shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said: “Today’s finding of contempt is a badge of shame for this government. It is of huge constitutional and political significance.

“Never before has the House of Commons found ministers in contempt of parliament. It is highly regrettable that the government has let it come to this, but ministers left the opposition with no option but to bring forward these proceedings."

Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Alex Wickham at alex.wickham@buzzfeed.com.

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