EXPLAINED What the Brexit bombshell dropped by John Bercow means for Theresa May

Posted On: 
19th March 2019

Everything you need to know about the Brexit bombshell John Bercow dropped on Parliament. 

Speaker John Bercow may have scuppered the Brexit timetable
House of Commons

What did John Bercow do?

The Speaker threw a grenade into the Brexit process yesterday when he announced Theresa May would not be allowed to hold a third Commons vote on her deal unless she brings it back with "substantial" changes. The deal was rejected by MPs for a second time last week by a massive 149 votes, and the Prime Minister was hoping to have a fresh shot at getting it through before she heads to the EU Council in Brussels on Thursday.

In a surprise announcement to the House, Mr Bercow declared: “If the Government wishes to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same that disposed of by the House on 12 March, this would be entirely in order. What the Government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week."

What does the rulebook say?

Bercow said he was referring to Commons convention dating back to 1604 that a defeated motion cannot be brought back in the same form during a parliamentary session. The rule is set out in parliamentary rulebook Erskine May.

Here is the relevant passage for all the true geeks out there: “It is a rule, in both houses, not to permit any question or bill to be offered, which is substantially the same as one on which their judgment has already been expressed, in the current session.

"This is necessary to avoid contradictory decisions, to prevent surprises, and to afford proper opportunities for determining the several questions as they arise.

"If the same question could be proposed again and again, a session would have no end, or only one question could be determined; and it would be resolved at first in the affirmative, and then in the negative, according to the accidents to which all voting is liable.”

What does it mean for Theresa May’s Brexit plans?

The upshot of the Bercow ruling is somewhat up in the air. One thing is for sure: It throws up a fresh hurdle for the Prime Minister she could well do without. Theresa May is still scrambling to win Tory and DUP MPs over to back her deal and the constitutional crisis sparked by the Speaker is yet another spanner in the works.

Observers argue there is no way the Government will bring the deal back to the Commons this week - but will instead wait until after the European Council summit on Thursday at which the PM will ask EU leaders to agree a Brexit delay in principle. According to the Sun, the PM is penning a letter to EU Council president Donald Tusk for a delay of up to a year with a clause allowing the UK to depart as soon as it is ready.

What options does the Government have?

This is where the interpretation of the rules comes into play. The convention does not allow the same motion to be voted on twice in the same session. That means changing either the motion or the session.

How much would the motion have to change? 

Amid the uproar in the Commons yesterday, Bercow said a new motion would  have to be “fundamentally different” and that a simple update to the legal advice about the Northern Irish backstop by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would not suffice. It suggests an actual change to the deal would be required - which will be tough now that the EU has insisted negotiations are closed.

Could the addition of the Brexit extension constitute a fundamental change to the deal MPs will be voting on? Could new arrangements for Northern Ireland to protect it against the backstop be enough? These are all questions the Government is asking itself today.

Could the session be changed?

Changing the parliamentary session might actually be easier - if not a tad more dramatic. It would mean ending - or “proroguing” the current session and losing any legislation that is not far enough through the process. Constitutional experts argue the Queen would have to come to re-open parliament but might not require a full speech from Her Maj. It has been done before, back in 1948.

Secret option three? 

The third and most likely option would be for MPs to vote on a motion saying they want another crack at the deal itself. The Government would have to table a ‘paving’ motion that would demand a fresh vote on the deal on a specific date - which if backed by MPs would effectively overrule the Speaker.

Who is laughing and who is crying?

The constitutional crisis is good news for anybody who wants to avoid another vote on the PM’s deal. That means campaigners who want a second EU referendum and Brexiteers who want to leave the bloc without a deal. It was notable that amid the furore in the Commons yesterday, MPs from both those groups were praising Bercow.

On the face of it the news is bad for the Government. But it should be noted that Theresa May might not have won a vote on her deal this week, so any excuse to kick it further down the road is a help, and the increased threat of a long Brexit extension might win more MPs over to her deal.

So who is left crying? Just journalists and the country at large, it appears.