No. 10’s strategy to win over the DUP and the Brexiteers to Theresa May’s deal in time for a third vote has hit a wall. It’s not that the talks have stopped – if anything they’re going fairly well. Instead, the Speaker of the Commons has thrown a spanner in the works by suggesting that the vote may never happen. Bercow has used a statement to the House to say that he will not permit a third meaningful vote on the deal to take place – unless there are substantial changes to the deal on the table.
Bercow surprised the government with the impromptu statement. In it, he invoked a ‘strong and longstanding convention’ dating back to 1604 (from the Erskine May guide to parliamentary procedure) which says that said that by convention, the question ‘may not be brought forward again during the same session’. The Speaker said that he would only permit the deal to be voted on for a third time if there were substantial changes. In the answers to questions that followed, Bercow appeared to say that ‘substantial changes’ would need to involve a renegotiation at EU level – rather than a re-clarification of Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice. Given that May and Brussels have said the negotiations have stopped, that is a high bar.
The look of anger and disbelief on Chief Whip Julian Smith’s face when Bercow made his announcement tells you everything you need to know about the government reaction. This makes it much harder for the government to pass a deal – even if everything goes to plan with the DUP and the Brexiteers. In the questions that followed the statement, MPs tried to glean information from Bercow on what he would allow as a substantial change. One loyal Conservative MP even suggested that Bercow be a modern speaker for modern times. However, this simply led Bercow to give a long monologue on his modernising efforts – which also appear to include conventions that date over 400 years.
Marc Francois also made the point that surely by this logic Bercow could no longer allow the same amendments to be tabled to these votes – as with the Cooper-Boles no deal amendment. However, the Speaker didn’t seem too taken with that argument and pointed out that really this is all at his discretion. Relations between the Speaker and the Conservatives took another turn for the worse when Bercow singled out Andrea Leadsom for daring to be on her phone while he spoke.
The problem the government has is that fair or not these matters are at the discretion of the Speaker. Even if they see them as biased, there is little that ministers can do other than kick up a fuss in the Chamber. The Tories do not have the numbers to oust Bercow from his role. In fact, there are some Brexiteers who have welcomed the decision.
If Bercow does refuse to allow another vote on the deal without changes from Brussels, the government’s plan for survival is in serious trouble. Solicitor general Robert Buckland has already suggested Parliament might have to prorogue – close down – in order to bring about a new session. There is already a hope in government that one way around this quandary is to wait until the UK has been granted a two year Article 50 extension and then use that as a ‘significant change’. Regardless, today’s decision has meant the various other Brexit scenarios have just increased in likelihood – including a general election.