Hats off to Bercow

by Hugo Dixon | 18.03.2019

The Speaker is right to say the prime minister can’t just keep bringing the same Brexit deal to MPs to vote on again and again. It’s time for Parliament to move on. Theresa May has wasted quite enough time as it is.

John Bercow’s statement in the House of Commons this afternoon was quite a subtle one. He hasn’t said flatly “no” to the idea that the government could bring its deal back to the vote after losing it last week by 149 votes. He has said the proposition would have to be substantially different – and that he would have to look at the exact context to determine whether what was being put to MPs was different or not.

The Speaker did, however, suggest that a further change in the deal would be needed. He accepted that the prime minister secured some changes after MPs rejected her deal for the first time in January which was why he allowed a second vote last week.

Merely a new opinion on what the deal meant wouldn’t be enough, he added. Presumably that was a reference to the idea that the attorney general might be prevailed upon to change his advice about how we could be indefinitely trapped in the notorious “backstop”.

Bercow seemed to suggest that a side deal between the government and the DUP wouldn’t be enough to change the proposition being put to MPs either. The prime minister is considering committing herself to new legislation to keep rules in Great Britain aligned to those of Northern Ireland.

The Speaker also seemed to suggest that the fact that a lot has happened since MPs rejected the deal last week wouldn’t be enough to change the context. Since then, MPs have also voted against quitting the EU without any deal at all as well as in favour of asking the EU for extra time.

On the other hand, Bercow was not categorical on these points. He said this was not his final word – and that he would have to look at any proposal by the government to hold a vote if and when it was put.

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Don’t go round in circles

The Speaker had good cause for his statement. After all, Erskine May, the parliamentary handbook, says: “A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.” It continues: “Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgment of the Chair.”

The ancient practice, going back to 1604, is there for a good purpose. It stops the Commons going round and round in circles and getting nowhere – exactly our current problem.

On the other hand, it is important that MPs can debate what they want to. So if there was a clamour to vote again on the prime minister’s deal, a way would be found to do it. The same goes for any other proposition that the Commons might want to reexamine. Parliamentary procedure isn’t frozen in time.

May’s options

So where does this leave the prime minister? Her chances of getting anything new from other leaders at the European Council on Thursday and Friday are slim. But, if she still wants to put her deal to MPs again, say next week, she could have a go at persuading the Speaker that the context was somehow different.

Alternatively, she could take up one of the two ideas MPs raised with the Speaker after his statement. One was to “prorogue” Parliament – effectively to end the current session and start again. Another was to propose changing or suspending Parliament’s rules so MPs can debate the same motion without starting a new session.

May won’t like either of these ideas. She has, after all, defended procedure in the past – most recently last week when she whipped against an idea by MPs to take control of the parliamentary timetable on the grounds that it was a dangerous constitutional innovation. It could seem hypocritical if she now advocated changing procedure just because it suited her – and she might not even succeed, as the Commons would have to approve such a change.

So perhaps she will just do the simple thing: go the European Council and ask for extra time to explore alternative options; and then come back and let MPs see if there is any other Brexit deal they can rally behind.

At that point, she should either put her deal, or any other proposition that has come out of the sausage factory, to the people to see if they think it is good enough. The prime minister won’t like that either. But she wanted MPs to have at least three votes on her deal. Why shouldn’t the people be allowed even one?

The second quote from Erskine May was corrected shortly after publication

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “Hats off to Bercow”

  • The ruling is there so that proper respect is paid to what MPs decide. Bercow’s action is being greeted with surprise, but it was surely predictable, and the fact that everyone was fatalistically expecting a third and fourth vote reflected that Bercow’s existence and likely intervention had been temporarily forgotten about.

  • What would the people say indeed…is it not hightime that this farcical situation be brought to a close by a simple final say from the people.
    Now that the beans have been spilled and even leavers have been shocked by consequences never dreamed of, a single stay or go , this time by a much better informed electorate could end it immediately.