An ancient rule means Bercow could take drastic action on Brexit | Politics News

John Bercow is an unusual speaker in that we know what he thinks. As someone uncharitably once said: “We’ve never had a speaker who has spoken quite so much.”

But on Wednesday, in yet another typically mellifluous performance, something stood out.

In response to a question from senior Labour backbencher Angela Eagle, about whether it is in order within the rules of the House of Commons for a motion to be brought back repeatedly even when it has been rejected, Mr Bercow had something interesting to say.

He told her: “No answer is required now but a ruling will be made about that matter at the appropriate time. I’m grateful to the right honourable lady for reminding me a ruling might be required.”

The speaker sounded as if he relished the prospect, and some MPs relish it even more. Because theoretically, John Bercow might be able to prevent yet another vote on the PM’s deal, given it has been decisively rejected by the House already.









PM: Lack of deal will mean ‘long’ Brexit delay

On paper, the principle is actually quite clear. According to the Commons’ rule book “Erskine May”, there is a clear precedent that a matter, once decided upon by MPs, cannot be considered again in the same session of parliament (which usually lasts a year – this current session has gone on for longer and will expire in the summer).

Buried deep within on page 397, there lies: “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 substantively the same as the first is a matter for the chair.”

In principle then, it would be in John Bercow’s gift to say that parliament has voted on a matter already and whether a second, third or fourth iteration is sufficiently different to merit further consideration.

As Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government said: “In the end, it’s the speaker’s discretion. Though he should follow the will of the House.”

There’s clearly a scenario where Mr Bercow says the will of the House is not to consider this again.

He could say that he permitted the second vote because, as a result of the renegotiation the government had made on the Irish backstop, the motion was sufficiently different.









The moment MPs rejected no deal

If the government has made no further changes (given the EU has said negotiations are completely over, that seems likely) then that would provide the circumstances where Mr Bercow might legitimately refuse.

One parliamentary source said: “If there’s been no substantial change it really is a moot point but he would certainly be able to argue the case.”

This rule hasn’t actually been used since 1943 – but as one source said, that’s because it hasn’t been necessary: “It happens all the time with private member’s bills, individual MPs are told by the clerks not to even bother putting a bill forward because parliament has voted on it this year already. Governments haven’t fallen foul of it because normally the rule is so robust they wouldn’t need to – or they’d have a majority and passed something already.”

It is possible the government might use some parliamentary chicanery, altering the motion in such a way that they could argue they could bring it forward again – that’s something former clerk David Natzler has suggested.

But once more, the ball is in the speaker’s court.

Mr Natzler said: “It would depend on the advice he receives from his clerks. But there is precedent.”

Will he do it? He’s been known to make controversial decisions over Brexit. He’s at the end of his career, he knows he’s on the way out and his views on Europe are well known.

Those most likely to criticise him, the hard Brexiteers, would have little credibility in so doing given they were the ones to vote against the PM’s deal in the first (and second) place.

But it would be explosive. The government would declare open warfare. He would run the risk of permanently politicising his office (some would say he’s done so already).

Yet even the threat of a Mr Bercow intervention might change things – and it could help the prime minister. If Mr Bercow allows the matter to be brought a third time, whilst making it clear that it will be the very last, then it could help focus minds of the Brexiteers that this is their final chance to save what is probably the hardest form of Brexit available.

All of this is at the outer edge of possibility. But in what has been an endless cascade of unlikely Brexit events, it wouldn’t be the most implausible to have come to pass.

One Remainer MP told me: “We like the idea but it would be super controversial. Don’t think we can rely on it.”

But you can always rely on John Bercow to be controversial and push the auspices of his office. Don’t count it out.

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