What does Bercow’s bombshell ruling mean for Brexit and parliament?

Published: 19 March 2019
Author: Jack Sheldon
Westminster’s seemingly endless Brexit drama has taken yet another twist with Commons Speaker John Bercow’s ruling that the government cannot bring forward a third ‘meaningful vote’ on its Brexit deal without a substantive change to the proposition. Much of the press and political reaction has presented this as a decisive intervention scuppering the government’s plans and making a long Article 50 extension or even no Brexit at all more likely. One newspaper headline described Bercow as ‘The Brexit Destroyer’, while Downing Street sources quoted by The Times accused the Speaker of sabotage. 
Bercow’s intervention was undoubtedly a dramatic piece of parliamentary theatre. Pronouncing to a hushed Commons, the Speaker cited precedents going back to 1604 and passages from the procedural bible Erskine May to justify his ruling, which followed the question of the orderliness of a further vote on the same agreement being raised by Labour MPs last week. During the course of his statement Bercow rebuked the government for its ‘deeply discourteous’ decision to postpone the first meaningful vote in December, and pointedly reminded the House of the 230 and 149 vote margins of the two previous government defeats. This, of course, is just the latest episode in a long-running conflict between Bercow and the Conservative frontbench, which goes back many years but has intensified in recent months. 
For all the drama, it is not clear that in the short-term Bercow’s latest ruling will change very much substantively. Before the Speaker’s statement it had already seemed rather unlikely that a meaningful vote would pass or even be tabled prior to the 21-22 March European Council, at which an extension to Article 50 will be requested. A few Conservatives that voted against the deal previously had indicated that they would now vote in favour and there had been speculation about the government agreeing a deal with the DUP to secure their support and with it that of some key Conservative Brexiteers. However, the number of switchers still seemed too small for the 149-vote margin from 12 March to be overturned. Government ministers had indicated they would only proceed with the third vote in the event they were confident it would pass, and as of Monday afternoon this was not the case.
The focus will now shift to agreeing an Article 50 extension at the European Council, in line with the Commons vote in favour of this of 14 March. Agreeing an extension will itself be far from straightforward as a duration will need to be negotiated and the government will need to be able to explain to the EU and to parliament what purpose it will serve. Thus far the government’s strategy has been to hope that fear of no deal (less relevant now an extension is being proposed) and no Brexit (increasingly relevant in the minds of Brexiteers) will eventually lead to the Withdrawal Agreement passing. The alternatives – ‘Norway+’, a customs union or a referendum (perhaps attached to a vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement) – have been considered deeply unappealing from a Conservative party management perspective, and none commands a clear majority in the House anyway. But the dynamics of needing to present a credible justification for an extension may force the government to at least recognise some or all of these as possibilities, to be considered by cross-party talks and/or voted on in ‘indicative’ free votes. 
In the end, though, there is no guarantee that alternative options will get closer to a House of Commons majority than the existing Withdrawal Agreement. The question of whether a further meaningful vote can be tabled may thus arise again at some point following the EU Council – either in the days after as the government hopes to get a deal through early enough to avoid holding European elections in May, or later on as a new deadline approaches. Contrary to what some commentary has implied, Bercow’s ruling does not prevent this. An agreed extension of Article 50 might be said to constitute a substantive change of context, even if the deal remains unchanged (though this would be for Bercow to decide). Alternatively, if a majority in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement did emerge that majority might be called upon to pass a ‘paving’ motion authorising a further meaningful vote to be held notwithstanding the convention. If a new parliamentary session begins a meaningful vote would also be in order, as the convention cited by the Speaker applies only to motions in the same session. It would thus be wrong to entirely write off the Withdrawal Agreement just yet.
In the longer term, yesterday’s events and the wider controversies involving Bercow over recent months raise important questions about the office of Speaker. Traditionally the Speaker of the House of Commons has been a figure of authority commanding respect across the House – in contrast to the partisan presiding officers found in many other parliaments around the world. Whatever the procedural rights and wrongs of the decisions that Bercow has been made, he has undoubtedly lost the confidence of a large number of Conservative MPs, with the result that his procedural rulings have become the subject of often highly partisan debate among MPs and commentators. For those who value an authoritative and respected Speakership, there are fears that when Bercow finally does stand down the contest to succeed him will duly be dominated by political considerations, with MPs supporting the candidate they consider likeliest to assist with their political objectives rather than the candidate best placed to command confidence across the House. Few would consider that a positive legacy for the current Brexit dramas to leave.

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