Secret legal advice on Brexit will be published by the government after Theresa May suffered a shattering Commons defeat at the hands of MPs.
Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom announced the move after the Commons voted 311 votes to 293 to find ministers guilty of “contempt of parliament” for refusing to reveal the confidential advice.
Just one week before the big vote on the PM’s Brexit deal, the margin of victory suggests that May will fail to win a majority for her plans to quit the EU.
Labour, the Northern Irish DUP, SNP and Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru had triggered the “contempt” action after Attorney General Geoffrey Cox failed to comply with MPs’ demands.
Their victory means that for the first time in history government ministers have been found guilty of the ancient offence, which involves any attempt to obstruct the working of parliament.
Leadsom swiftly responded to the defeat by promising to publish the legal advice “in full” on Wednesday.
Never before has the full legal advice of any attorney general been published in its entirety. In 2003, Tony Blair refused publication of advice on the legality of the Iraq war, and only a one page summary was eventually released years later.
Attorney General Cox sparked anger on Monday when he published only a position statement, rather than the “full legal advice” insisted on by the Commons last month.
Cox, who is the most senior legal officer in the cabinet and government, had faced the humiliation of being suspended or even expelled by from the Commons.
Earlier, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer told MPs the government had been “wilfully refusing to comply” with the express will of parliament.
But Commons Leader Leadsom argued ministers had treated MPs “with the greatest of respect”, adding that Cox had gone out of his way to satisfy parliament’s wishes.
“There can be no question that he or the government has acted in a manner which is contemptuous of this house,” she said.
She proposed an alternative amendment that the whole matter be put to the Commons privileges committee to decide if any contempt had been committed. The amendment was defeated by 311 votes to 307.
On Tuesday morning, Theresa May told the cabinet that at stake was a “fundamental principle” that “candid” legal advice given to ministers should remain confidential.
The prime minister told cabinet it was a “long-standing convention” that “neither the fact nor the content of law officers’ advice is shared outside government without their consent”.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also said the publication of the full Brexit legal advice would make the “practice of government totally and utterly impossible”.