Minority government strikes again as ministers found in contempt of parliament

The government’s defeat on motions against its failure to disclose Brexit legal advice show Theresa May can no longer rely on a working majority.

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Minority government is going badly for Theresa May. After several hours of Commons debate, ministers have been found in contempt of parliament over their refusal to abide by the result of a binding vote that called for the publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. 

Commons leader Andrea Leadsom had tried to stave off defeat by amending Labour’s motion to refer the question of whether ministers – namely Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, and David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy – had been in contempt in parliament to the Commons committee on standards, an alternative that was criticised by Labour as an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass. 

It was defeated 311 votes to 307, with the DUP and two Conservative Brexiteers: Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone, voting against the government. A senior unionist source said the tight margin demonstrated that its MPs were responsible for inflicting the defeat on the administration they are still notionally keeping in office. “Even if we’d abstained, the government would have won,” they said.

Ministers suffered an even greater defeat on the contempt motion itself – an event unprecedented in modern history – which was passed by 311 votes to 293. Leadsom has confirmed that the government will publish its legal advice in full tomorrow. Cox and Lidington are now liable for some form of punishment by the parliamentary authorities. 

In truth, however, the substance of the row over the legal advice – confected by opposition parties who were already dead set on voting against the withdrawal agreement – is secondary to the more pressing question of whether the government has a majority it can rely on when it comes to Brexit or indeed anything else. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the events of the past fortnight – which has seen the DUP effectively go on strike and ministers accept dozens of opposition amendments to the budget and other legislation – is that it does not. 

That the government lost 18 votes between the two divisions will set alarm-bells ringing and represents an acute failure of organisation from its Whips ahead of next week's meaningful vote. It is increasingly apparent that Brexit has broken the government's ability to command the loyalty of its own MPs, and, more importantly, to actually govern – quite possibly for good. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.