According to the BBC, today's vote by the UK Parliament that finds the government in contempt, is said to have "huge" constitutional and political significance".

Setting aside the immediate issue and impact (Brexit legal advice will be published, fairly obviously), and looking at the UK politics and government in a much broader sense, and a longer historical context, what exactly is the real constitutional significance of this uncommon vote, and what are its broader/longer term/more profound implications and subtle changes it might imply to the political process?

(Note I'm excluding the brexit debate which gave rise to it)

  • 2
    Relevant Wikipedia link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contempt_of_Parliament#United_Kingdom. As to the actual significance, I don't have a clue, but assuming it isn't just rhetoric, I'd guess it has something to do with the balance of power between the PM and other ministers, and the rest of Parliament.
    – Bobson
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 18:28

1 Answer 1


Immediately: Nothing.

Other than the legal advice actually being published. I don't believe a penalty has been applied. The motion refers to "Ministers" rather than named individuals.

It's a rare but well-defined process: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt199899/jtselect/jtpriv/43/4310.htm points out in para 310 that it's actually been made a specific crime for the devolved assemblies, but not at Westminster.

Here's the debate from the day.

Ordinarily, this might have been a reason for resignations or the collapse of the government. In the strange post-Brexit time of incompetence, it's a Tuesday. There might be token resignations.

Long run: Nobody knows.

This makes for a bad stackexchange answer, but I'm writing this because I think it's the only reasonable one. The question of "is the government entitled to get legal advice and then keep it confidential even from the House of Commons" is one Constitutional question.

There is also the question of how negotiations carried out by the government can be controlled by Parliament: here's Bill Cash phrasing it from what I think is the pro-Brexit point of view. Given that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is now law of the United Kingdom, is the proposed withdrawal agreement compatible with that law?

We are perhaps too accustomed to large majority well-whipped governments in which the PM tells Parliament what to do. The current situation of effectively minority government is now bringing the operation of and will of Parliament back into focus.

Leaving the EU would be a huge change to UK constitutional law on its own. The devolved assemblies are all built around the assumption of EU law applying, and so has the relationship with Ireland since 1972. This sets up a constitutional fight over devolution.

  • Well, at least it's likely that many brexit supporters will be happy. Given that parliamentary sovereignty (vs EU lawmaking) was such a pivotal issue in the referendum for many people.
    – Stilez
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 13:52
  • I'm not convinced, as it's gradually dawning on them (e.g. Nadine Dorries) that the price of total freedom from EU rules is not only total exclusion but total loss of influence over Europe. And possibly interruption of food supplies.
    – pjc50
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 14:22
  • @pjc50 We've heard those scare stories for more than two years now - nobody believes them anymore. Please don't repeat them here.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 0:14
  • 2
    @Sjoerd - Calling them "scare stories" is propaganda, too. And the idea that "nobody" believes them is factually inaccurate. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 8:17

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