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Cabinet minister could face suspension over Brexit legal advice

Cabinet minister could face suspension over Brexit legal advice

A cabinet minister is at risk of being suspended from parliament and missing next week’s crunch Commons vote after Labour and the DUP accused ministers of holding parliament in contempt for failing to publish the full Brexit legal advice on Monday. The fate of the minister – likely to be either David Lidington or Geoffrey…

A cabinet minister is at risk of being suspended from parliament and missing next week’s crunch Commons vote after Labour and the DUP accused ministers of holding parliament in contempt for failing to publish the full Brexit legal advice on Monday.

The fate of the minister – likely to be either David Lidington or Geoffrey Cox – will be in the hands of MPs after John Bercow, the Speaker, declared there was “an arguable case that a contempt has been committed”.

Bercow said he would accept a contempt motion from Labour, the Democratic Unionist party and four other opposition parties, allowing MPs to debate the matter on Tuesday before the beginning of the five-day debate on whether to endorse the Brexit deal.

He accepted the plea from the combined opposition parties, which had complained at the end of a fractious two-and-a-half-hour debate that the summary legal advice released on Monday did not comply with a Commons resolution agreed on 13 November.

MPs would be given the chance to decide whether Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, or Cox, the attorney general, would be suspended for several days – although it was not immediately certain who would be in the firing line.

If the matter was pressed to a vote, it would potentially amount to an early proxy vote on Theresa May’s final Brexit deal, with the DUP, which props up May’s government, threatening to join with Labour and vote against.

Excluding a minister from the meaningful vote on 11 December would add to the pressure on the prime minister, who is already facing a massive rebellion of 95 MPs from her own party who say they cannot support the deal.

It would also overshadow the first day of the five-day debate, which May intends to lead in her increasingly fraught attempt to get her Brexit deal endorsed by parliament.

Cox conceded on Monday that he was at risk of being declared in contempt of parliament for his actions when he became the first attorney general for 40 years to appear before MPs to take questions.

The government’s chief legal officer said MPs must decide “whether or not an attorney general, seeking to protect the public interest” was in contempt. He said he had “sought to comply with the spirit of it to the maximum degree” by putting himself before MPs and publishing a 45-page summary earlier in the day.

Ominously for May, some hard-Brexit MPs said they were unsatisfied by the decision to defy an earlier Commons resolution calling for full publication.

Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Cox of not explaining why ministers were refusing to comply with the Commons motion. “It is no longer a matter for the government to judge; it has been decided by this house, which is a higher authority,” he said.

The joint letter demanding the Speaker to act came from the shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, and other parties’ Brexit spokespeople: Nigel Dodds, DUP; Stephen Gethins, Scottish National party; Tom Brake, Liberal Democrats; Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru; and Caroline Lucas, of the Green party. It complained that “the information released today … does not comply with a motion of the house that you have ruled to be effective”.

On 13 November, the Commons unanimously agreed to a motion put down by Labour calling for the legal advice on the Brexit deal to be published “in full”. Conservative MPs were told to abstain after it became clear that the government was not certain of winning the vote when the DUP said it would vote with Labour.

Cox told the Commons on Monday that the government had made a mistake at the time. He said: “We should have opposed it,” although he added that he would not have complied even if the vote had been lost.

Cox sought to sell the Brexit deal to MPs on the grounds that it represented “a calculated risk”. He was asked by Joanna Cherry of the SNP if there was anything to prevent the Northern Ireland backstop, under which the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, becoming permanent.

Cox replied: “As a matter of international law, no,” but added that if the backstop did become permanent, it would be “highly vulnerable to legal challenge” within EU law,

The attorney general admitted he would have preferred to have seen “a unilateral right of termination” in the backstop and “a clause that would have allowed us to exit if negotiations had irretrievably broken down”.

But he said it represented “a sensible compromise” and told MPs to “weigh it up against the other potential alternatives and to asses whether it amounted to a “calculated risk that this government and this house should take in these circumstances”.

Downing Street had hoped to start persuading backbenchers to support May’s deal despite widespread concern in her party that the UK could become trapped in the backstop. May spoke with small groups of backbench MPs in her Commons office throughout the day.

On Tuesday, the prime minister will openthe five-day debate leading up to the final vote next week by saying that the British people have already twice voted to deliver Brexit.

The prime minister will argue that the British public showed what they wanted “by voting overwhelmingly for parties that committed to delivering Brexit” in the referendum and in the 2017 election Both Conservative and Labour manifestos at the last election said they respected the leave vote in the 2016 referendum.

May will say that Brexit “sets us on course for a better future” and that the vote to leave was a vote to “create a new role for our country in the world”.

She will say that the pooling of sovereignty can only be sustained with the consent of the people, adding: “In the referendum of 2016, the biggest democratic exercise in our history, the British public withdrew that consent.”

Tuesday’s debate will be closed by the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, and the following days will be themed, with senior cabinet ministers speaking in support of the deal. Wednesday’s theme will be security and the debate will be opened by the home secretary, Sajid Javid and closed by Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary. On Thursday, the focus will be on the economy, opened by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and closed by the international trade secretary, Liam Fox.

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