There’s even the possibility the PM could be expelled from the Commons.
The chances are remote, but a legal battle that will play out today in parliament is potentially highly damaging for May, at a time when she is at her most vulnerable politically.
And Labour has warned the UK faces a “constitutional crisis” on top of all the other problems currently wracking the country.
What’s It All About?
As May battles to save her Brexit deal ahead of a crucial Commons vote on December 11, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will today outline his legal view of the deal signed by the PM and the EU last month.
Despite demands from MPs across the green benches, Cox will not release legal advice sought by the government on the deal in full, instead giving a summary during a speech in the Commons on Monday.
But parliamentarians have argued the government is required to release the full advice – including Cox’s legal opinion – following a unanimous binding vote last month.
Ministers have been accused of ignoring the will of the House after saying they will publish only a “full reasoned political statement” on the legal position concerning the Withdrawal Agreement – particularly the Northern Ireland backstop.
Keir Starmer MP, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said: “At this critical stage, MPs can’t be kept in the dark, nor can we risk parliament being bounced into a decision without having all of the facts available.
“Ministers should accept this motion and allow MPs to have an informed debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit.”
Many politicians believe the public, “not just the cabinet” should be given full access to all of the facts.
Which MPs Are Objecting?
Labour, obviously – but worryingly for ministers, Jeremy Corbyn’s party says it has the support of the DUP, who prop up the government in the Commons, as well as the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. Many Tory MPs are also demanding to see the advice.
In his weekly column in The Daily Telegraph, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said it was a “scandal” that ministers were withholding the full information.
“It is outrageous that the public should be prevented from knowing the full legal implications of this appalling deal – when it is their rights, their freedoms, their hard-won suffrage, that are about to be bartered away,” he said.
What Are They Going To Do?
Disgruntled MPs could initiate proceedings against the government for contempt of parliament.
Under Commons rules, if the Speaker allows a contempt motion to go before the House and the vote is carried, it would then be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
John Bercow warned ministers of the risks last week, telling Starmer that he was “free to write to me as early as he likes to suggest that the House has seen or is about to be subject to a contempt and seeking precedence for a motion to deal with it” following the announcement that the advice would not be released.
The Speaker added: “It will be for me to decide, and I will not linger, whether there is an arguable case that a contempt has been committed and therefore whether an appropriate motion should be put urgently before the House.”
If the committee rules a contempt has occurred, it can recommend a suitable punishment which is then put back to MPs to agree.
In theory, the most severe penalty is expulsion from the House, although the prospects of that happening would appear remote.
Another punishment is being locked up in the small prison cell in the base of the tower that holds Big Ben, but that hasn’t been handed out since MP Charles Bradlaugh was imprisoned in the 1880s.
Lesser punishments include a fine, or imprisonment in a regular jail.
Will It Be Entertaining?
Yes. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is the gent who warmed-up the stage for May at the Tory Conference earlier this year, wowing the crowd and much of the public with his speech.
His description of the UK even included a few lines of Milton:
“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.”
What Else Do I Need To Know?
May’s chief Brexit adviser secretly warned her that the Northern Ireland backstop agreed in her deal with Brussels was a “bad outcome” for Britain, it has been reported.
In a letter to the prime minister, Oliver Robbins said the backstop, intended to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic, would mean the imposition of regulatory checks between the North and the rest of the UK, according to The Daily Telegraph.