There's just been a historic government defeat that increases the chances we’ll stay in the EU
Our chief political commentator explains the significance of tonight’s votes in the House of Commons
Theresa May lost three votes tonight, which are only the third, fourth and fifth times she has been defeated since the election stripped her of her majority. In a way, it is a remarkable achievement to have avoided more defeats, but now we are entering what has long been promised – those uncharted constitutional waters.
Never before has a government been held to be “in contempt” of parliament. So it is significant that MPs voted to do just that, twice. First, they voted against the government’s attempt to divert the question of whether or not it was in contempt to a parliamentary committee. This rather obvious device to try to delay censure was lost by just four votes.
Then the House of Commons voted on the question itself, and by a margin of 18 votes decided that the government was “in contempt” by refusing to publish its legal advice on the Brexit deal.
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Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House, the minister in charge of getting the government’s business through the Commons, immediately surrendered and said the legal advice would be published tomorrow. That is what the government should have done in the first place, if it wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being defeated, but ministers, especially Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, and senior civil servants feel strongly about the principle of legal advice being confidential.
Finally, the government was defeated – by 22 votes this time – on a procedural motion giving the Commons more power over next week’s Brexit decisions.
There are important consequences of these defeats – beyond the mere forced publication of the legal advice. That may be something of an anticlimax because I suspect there isn’t anything in the advice that wasn’t in the summary that the government has already published, or in the statements made by the attorney general when he came to the Commons yesterday. There may be one or two colourful lines in there about how terrible the backstop is – the arrangements in the Brexit deal to guarantee an open border in Ireland. But we already know Cox’s view because he has “expatiated” on it, as he put it, at some length.
Perhaps more significant is that it means the Commons begins five days of debate on the Brexit deal, which is expected to end in a government defeat, with a series of government defeats. That is bad for Conservative morale and for giving the general impression to the world that the prime minister is in control of events. This was graphically illustrated by the fall in the pound on the currency markets: that wasn’t rational, but a simple reaction to the appearance of chaos and uncertainty.
If the markets had been rational, the pound should have gone up, because the harder May finds it to get her deal through parliament, the more likely it is that Brexit will be postponed or – after another referendum, perhaps – abandoned altogether. That is an outcome that the markets believe would boost the economy, so the pound should rise.
At every stage recently, it seems I have written a comment saying that the latest development makes a new referendum slightly more likely. This one is no exception.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
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