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 who 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, who prop 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.