PM suffers three major setbacks as Brexit debate begins
Theresa May suffered several major setbacks in a historic day for Brexit, as the biggest test of her divorce deal looms.
Tumultuous events in London and Luxembourg saw:
:: Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clash in the first day of a five-day debate that will either see the PM’s Brexit deal accepted or rejected
:: Government ministers found in “contempt of parliament” for the first time in history
:: Powers wrestled out of Mrs May’s hands if her Brexit deal is defeated on 11 December
:: The BBC scrap a TV leaders’ debate due to be held on Sunday
:: A top EU law officer suggest the UK can stop Brexit by unilaterally revoking Article 50.
Tuesday in the Commons was supposed to be the prime minister’s showpiece – what all events since the 2016 referendum had been leading up to.
Early in the morning, Mrs May had declared that MPs must accept her divorce deal with Brussels – words intended to make Tuesday’s newspaper front pages.
But a joint bid by six political parties, including Labour and the government’s confidence and supply partners the DUP, saw all that off.
They wanted to hold ministers in “contempt of parliament” for refusing to release the full legal advice offered on the Brexit divorce deal.
Despite a vote last month ordering it be published, the attorney general had refused to comply because it was not in the “public interest”.
The government tried to get round that by adding an amendment that kicked the decision into the long grass by referring it to a committee.
But the amendment lost by 311 votes to 307 – with Tory MPs Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone joining opposition parties.
With sharp gasps of breath ringing out through the chamber when the result emerged, more Tory MPs gave up and let the next crucial vote pass.
For the first time in history, MPs found the government in contempt of parliament by 311 votes to 293.
In response, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom promised that the legal advice would be published in full on Wednesday.
But this was not the final significant defeat Mrs May faced, as one of her own backbenchers proposed a change to the fate of Brexit if the deal falls.
Dominic Grieve, a pro-Europe Tory who served as attorney general for four years, got his amendment passed to let MPs have more of a say on Brexit plans if the prime minister’s deal is defeated in parliament next Tuesday.
Some 25 Conservative MPs flocked to back it, including Mrs May’s close friend and former deputy Damian Green.
The last time a government lost three Commons votes in a row was in 1978, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University.
Moments after the trio of defeats, the prime minister took to the despatch box to open five days of debate on the final Brexit deal.
She declared that the argument over Brexit had “gone on long enough” and that “life depends on compromise”.
Mrs May insisted the backstop that prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland after December 2020 was “not a trick” and insists Brussels “won’t want us in there indefinitely”.
She admitted her deal was not “perfect”, but warned those planning to vote against it would “put this country on course for no deal”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hit back by calling the withdrawal agreement a “leap in the dark” that “takes us no closer to understanding what the future of this country post-Brexit looks like”.
He added that “if the government can’t govern… then the great British tradition is those governments resign”.
Other fiery interventions saw the DUP welcome another general election and Boris Johnson vow to vote against the “paint and plaster pseudo Brexit [where] beneath the camouflage we find the same old EU institutions”.
The high-stakes debate will continue on Wednesday, Thursday, next Monday and then culminate with votes on six amendments and the final motion next Tuesday.
Hopes of a face-to-face TV debate between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn on the deal were also dashed, when the BBC announced it was pulling out from offering to host it.
The prime minister had agreed to the corporation’s format, but Mr Corbyn favours ITV’s.
Downing Street said it “remains committed to holding a debate” – but there are no further details of if that will happen.
In a boost for Remain campaigners, the European Court of Justice (ECJ’s) advocate general also told the court it should allow the UK to stop the process of leaving the EU unilaterally.
Campos Sanchez-Bordona’s opinion is not binding, but the ECJ tends to follow his stance in its final rulings.