If you’ve been struggling to follow what on earth is happening in politics these last few days, you’re not alone. But with scary-sounding phrases like “contempt of parliament” being thrown around, it’s clear that the road to Brexit is anything but plain sailing. Here’s your need-to-know.
What is contempt of parliament?
Put simply, contempt of parliament refers to an MP or other stakeholder doing something that obstructs parliament’s work. Past examples of when people have been found to be in contempt of parliament include Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson, who was suspended in 2016 for leaking a draft report. David Davis also came close to being found in contempt last year, amid a row about the publishing of Brexit impact assessments, but speaker John Bercow spared him from an investigation.
Why are we talking about it now?
It’s relevant now because MPs are due to vote on May’s Brexit deal in a few days time, and many feel that not all of the important information has been made public. At the centre of this is legal advice given by the government’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox. The Labour party pushed for a vote to make this advice public but, despite losing, the government still refused to publish it in full, with Cox citing “a clash of constitutional principles”: in short, a dilemma between the public interest and the potential harm to the country. With the advice still only published in summary form, Labour pushed ahead on Tuesday with a vote on whether the government was in contempt of parliament – MPs voted that it was, and the legal advice was published in full on Wednesday morning.
What did the legal advice say?
Really, the advice makes plain what many people already suspected. The most important points are that the exit talks could end in “stalemate”, and that the controversial “backstop” proposal for the Irish border, touted as a temporary measure until trade deals are finalised, could “endure indefinitely”. Spelling it out in black and white, though, is politically problematic for the government, which is already struggling to gain the required support for its deal.
Were there any other votes?
Strangely enough, the contempt of parliament vote probably wasn’t the most significant one that took place on Tuesday. Following it, Conservative MP Dominic Grieve – also a former attorney general – successfully tabled a motion granting a Commons vote on the next stages of the Brexit process, if May doesn’t successfully get her deal through parliament next week. Essentially, all MPs will now get a say on something the government had tried to maintain control over.
It’s a fairly safe bet that May’s deal won’t get through parliament smoothly next week. But, beyond that, there are really no safe bets at all
What happens now?
Following a bruising night for the government, in which they lost three votes in just over an hour, MPs have now launched into an epic five days of debate over the Brexit deal, ahead of voting early next week. It still looks incredibly unlikely that the deal will get through parliament, which raises a question that nobody quite knows the answer to: what happens then?
Most immediately, May could seek to renegotiate or she could bring back a slightly amended version to a vote. And, beyond her control, she could still be subjected to a vote of no confidence – either from her own MPs regarding her position as party leader, or from the Labour party about the government itself. Each of these would significantly delay the Brexit process, while a leadership election or general election happened.
Grieve’s successful motion has also handed power to a parliament whose majority favours remaining in the EU. This means the chances of a second referendum might be higher now, and that the version of Brexit most likely to pass through parliament is a “softer” one, keeping the UK aligned to the EU in many ways. And all of this comes just as a top European legal officer announced his view that the UK should be able to cancel its withdrawal from the EU without the consent of other EU member states.
It’s a fairly safe bet that May’s deal won’t get through parliament smoothly next week. But, beyond that, there are really no safe bets at all.