Senior government ministers are facing possible suspension from the House of Commons days before a crucial vote on Brexit after they were accused of holding Parliament in contempt.
Opposition MPs including the Conservatives’ DUP allies pushed for contempt proceedings against Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on Monday night, claiming he refused to publish the full legal guidance given to ministers about the Brexit deal.
Following a formal request, Commons Speaker John Bercow said there had been an “arguable case that a contempt has been committed” and ruled MPs should debate the issue on Tuesday, right before the start of five days of debate on the Brexit deal.
Mr Bercow made the comments in response to demands from Labour, the DUP and four other opposition parties, which had complained that the summary legal advice released by the Government on Monday did not comply with a Commons resolution passed in November.
The matter will be debated by the Commons, and could lead to a vote to suspend the Attorney General for five days. A further suspension for 21 days could follow, and Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington could also be in line for a sanction.
Suspension would rob the government of precious votes ahead of MPs’ decision on the Brexit deal in a week’s time, with the survival of Theresa May’s deal already looking unlikely.
Mr Cox was repeatedly challenged about the issue in the Commons on Monday but insisted it was in the public interest for the legal advice he gave to ministers to remain confidential.
“The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will,” he acknowledged.
“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.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “The contempt the Tories have shown Parliament and the people of this country demonstrates that they are not fit for the office they hold.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “We have given ministers numerous opportunities to comply with the order of Parliament and to release the Attorney General’s full and final legal advice on the Government’s Brexit deal. However, they have refused to do so.
“We have therefore been left with no option but to press ahead with contempt proceedings.”
He added: “Even at this eleventh hour, I would urge ministers to step back from the brink and to not go down in history as the first Government to be found in contempt.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “MPs expect the publication of the full legal Brexit advice before the debates on the withdrawal deal begin.
“The Government must not be allowed to use this chaotic situation to take focus away from the mess they are making of Brexit.”
The cross-party motion tabled by Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems, DUP, Plaid Cymru and Green Party states that the House of Commons finds ministers in contempt for failing to comply with the resolution passed by MPs in November demanding the legal advice and “orders its immediate publication”.
Solicitor General Robert Buckland told BBC’s Newsnight it was a “complete diversion” and a “concocted parliamentary parlour game that should be stopped”.
But Tory Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg told the programme: “I would say publish and avoid being in contempt of the House of Commons, which is a very serious matter.”
The issue risks overshadowing Mrs May’s effort to win over MPs ahead of the showdown in a week’s time.