None of this really matters unless either the government can secure a majority for its deal, or someone else can secure a majority for something elseby Raphael Hogarth / March 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
Westminster loves nothing more than a row about process, and John Bercow’s ruling yesterday threw ministers into a fit of procedural rage. Following MPs’ rejection of the government’s Brexit deal, the Speaker decided that the government will not be allowed to ask the House to approve the agreement again unless MPs get to vote on “a substantially different proposition.”
With all the fanfare that MPs have come to expect, Mr Bercow assured the House that his statement was “an extremely important occasion.” Was it?
The ruling has certainly scuppered the government’s timetable since the prime minister has had to ditch plans to return the deal to Parliament today. Yet the deal was widely expected to fall today anyway. The real question is whether the government can get it back to Parliament at all.
The Prime Minister will try. She is off to Brussels this week to talk to other EU leaders about extending the Article 50 negotiating period, and the conclusions of those talks—on whether we can extend, under what conditions and for how long—might just amount to enough of a “change” for the Speaker to let MPs look at the deal again. He did give himself some wiggle-room here, noting that his rulings will depend on “the circumstances of the time.”
If that approach fails, then the government may ask MPs to vote on a motion that the Speaker’s ruling, and the convention it upheld, should be set aside so they can have another vote on the deal. The House controls its own procedures, after all, and the House is not the same thing as John Bercow.
This strategy has a clear logic to it: if there is a majority for the deal, there is surely a majority to vote on the deal too. The political reality may be messier, though. The prime minister’s plan was to put a gun to MPs’ heads and ask them to vote for the deal—but if she wants to get around Mr Bercow’s decision, she has to ask them to put the gun to their own heads in the first place. It may be a tougher ask.
If none of that works, then there are some more radical possibilities. The government could open the door to substantive changes to the deal itself, perhaps by giving parliamentarians time for “indicative votes” on various Brexit options.
EU leaders have signalled that they would be happy to change the “political declaration,” the non-binding part of the deal which signals a direction of travel for the future UK-EU relationship, if parliamentary opinion coalesces around a softer Brexit. Theresa May has always resisted that approach, fearing the consequences for her own grip on the process and, no doubt, her party’s. Parliament may yet force her hand.
The prime minister could try instead to use the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), the legislation that the government has prepared to implement the deal in UK law, to get the deal in front of MPs again. She could put a motion before Parliament which endorsed not only her deal but also her legislation, arguing that this was a substantially different proposition.
Technically she could even skip the meaningful vote altogether and go straight to the bill. That would surely be new enough for the Speaker—though it might also have the ring of a trick.
Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, has raised the prospect of a nuclear option: the government could ask the Queen to prorogue parliament, ending the current parliamentary session, and start a new one. The convention which sits behind the Speaker’s ruling—that Parliament cannot be asked the same question twice in one session—would then be moot.
The downside, for the government, is that this would kill every bill before Parliament overnight, including legislation to prepare for no deal. It would also invite flurries of accusations that the government is precipitating “constitutional crisis,” politicising the monarch and trying to sidestep the rules.
The procedural row is surely not over yet, and the Speaker will be back in the spotlight before long. None of it really matters, though, unless either the government can secure a majority for its deal, or someone else can secure a majority for something else. If there is a consensus latent in the House, Mr Bercow will struggle to stop that consensus from expressing itself, one way or another, and it would be absurd for him to try.
If there isn’t, then in the end the procedural ruckus is just displacement activity. Parliament’s challenge remains, as ever, the search for a majority.