LONDON— The British government received a historic rebuke from lawmakers on Tuesday over its Brexit plans — an inauspicious sign for Prime Minister Theresa May as she opened an epic debate in Parliament that will decide the fate of her divorce deal with the European Union.
Legislators in the House of Commons found the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish in full the advice it had received from the country’s top law officer about the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
The vote has little direct impact on the Brexit debate, but reflects mounting tension between the government and Parliament over the next steps in the U.K.’s exit. The reprimand, by 311 votes to 293, marks the first time a British government has been found in contempt of Parliament.
Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the contempt finding was “unprecedented.” The government said that in light of the vote it would publish the advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on Wednesday.
The parliamentary showdown delayed for several hours the start of debate on the Brexit deal. Lawmakers are due to hold five days of discussion before voting Dec. 11 on whether to accept or reject the agreement, which lays out the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc on March 29 and sets the framework for future relations with the EU.
Defeat would leave the U.K. facing a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit and could topple the prime minister, her government, or both.
May planned open the debate by arguing that members of Parliament must back the agreement to deliver on the voters’ decision to leave the EU and “create a new role for our country in the world.”
But her chances of winning majority backing for the deal look slim.
Politicians on both sides of Britain’s EU membership debate oppose the agreement that May struck with the bloc — pro-Brexit ones because it keeps Britain bound closely to the EU, and pro-EU politicians because it erects barriers between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner.
“The numbers in the Houses of Parliament look pretty formidable for Theresa May,” said Alan Wager, a research associate at the U.K. at the Changing Europe think tank. “Over 100 Conservative MPs have said they are not going to back the deal, the Labour Party have said they are not going to back the deal. So it looks like the deal won’t pass next week.”
Leaving the EU without a deal would end more than 40 years of free trade and disrupt the flow of goods and services between Britain and the EU. The Bank of England warned last week that a no-deal Brexit could plunge Britain into a severe recession, with the economy shrinking by 8 percent in the months after March 29.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said Tuesday that British consumers could see their weekly supermarket bills up by 10 percent in a worst-case Brexit scenario that involves a 25 percent fall in the value of the pound.
Opponents of Brexit got a boost Tuesday when a top official at the European Union’s highest court advised that Britain can change its mind about leaving the European Union if it wants.
Advocate General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona told the European Court of Justice that a British decision to revoke the countdown to departure would be legally valid. The advice of the advocate general is often, but not always, followed by the full court.
Britain voted in 2016 to leave the 28-nation bloc, and invoked Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, triggering a two-year exit process. Article 50 is scant on details — largely because the idea of any country leaving the bloc was considered unlikely when it was drawn up — so a group of Scottish legislators asked the courts to rule on whether the U.K. can pull out of the withdrawal procedure on its own.
The advocate general said that Article 50 “allows the unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU.”
The EU’s governing European Commission and European Council oppose unilateral revocation, arguing it requires unanimous agreement of the 27 remaining members of the bloc.
The court’s final verdict is expected within weeks.
May’s spokesman, James Slack, said the opinion didn’t change “the clear position of the government that Article 50 is not going to be revoked.”
But the advice bolstered anti-Brexit campaigners, who hope the decision to leave can be reversed.
Jo Maugham, a British lawyer who helped bring the case, said it “puts the decision about our future back into the hands of our own elected representatives — where it belongs.”
By JILL LAWLESS and RAF CASERT , Associated Press