Theresa May’s grip on the Brexit process has weakened markedly this week and not least because of a controversial ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Mr Bercow has been accused of riding roughshod over the rules of parliament, rejecting the advice of officials and even of using his powers to pursue his own anti-Brexit agenda. He himself claims he was simply providing members of parliament with a proper means of doing their job, of holding the government to account. Was his action justified or not?
Things were already going badly for the Prime Minister when, on Tuesday, MPs passed an amendment to the Finance Bill. It meant that the government would have to get explicit authorisation from parliament for any extra spending incurred if Britain leaves the European Union without an agreement. Ministers dismissed this as a mere ‘inconvenience’. But a second defeat on Wednesday was more serious, and more controversial.
Wednesday’s business in the House of Commons was set down by the government and was the resumption of the debate on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. It had been postponed before Christmas because Mrs May was afraid it would be defeated if a vote were taken then. But before it could begin, Dominic Grieve, the former (Tory) attorney-general, put down an amendment. It said that if the vote on the deal were lost when it is taken next Tuesday, the government would be required to come up with another plan within three days, rather than within three weeks, as the existing law says.
The motivation behind the amendment was that there are very few days left before Britain is due to leave the EU on 29 March and parliament should be given as much time as possible to consider alternatives to the defeated deal. Those supporting the amendment fear the government would use those three weeks to ‘run down the clock’ so that MPs would ultimately be faced with the stark choice of a modified version of Mrs May’s deal or leaving without a deal at all. Supporters of the amendment think MPs should be able to consider other options, including even holding a second referendum, and be given the time to do so.
It had been expected that the Speaker would reject Mr Grieve’s amendment because of precedent. It says that government business that is tabled to be conducted ‘forthwith’ cannot be amended. But Mr Bercow broke with tradition and authorised an immediate vote (without debate) on the amendment and it was carried by eleven votes.
His decision caused immediate uproar. It became clear that it had been taken against the advice of the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir David Natzler, the expert authority on Commons procedure. And it appeared to set a precedent which would make it considerably harder for governments to get their business through the House in the future.
The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, said the ruling was ‘extremely concerning’. She said that the Speaker, ‘instead of being the guardian of the rules, decided to unilaterally change the rules’. One furious Tory backbencher said it was like a football referee changing the offside rule in the middle of a match and then awarding a penalty.
Mr Bercow did not deny that his ruling was a break with convention, though he said the long-term implications of the decision would need to be considered rather than assumed to make future government control of the House of Commons impossible. He said: ‘If we were guided only by precedent, nothing would ever change.’ He had tried to make an ‘honest’ judgment, he claimed, and added: ‘I am trying to do the right thing’.
His reasoning seems to be that with the government lacking a majority and likely to lose the vote on the Brexit deal next Tuesday, it will be up to MPs to decide where the long saga of Brexit goes from there. His case was that MPs should be helped in doing that job rather than be hindered by convention. It was welcomed by many MPs – especially those who believe that if Mrs May’s deal is indeed defeated they should be able to consider several options - and swiftly.
Others, however, are suspicious of the Speaker’s motivation. He has long been accused of pro-Labour bias even though he himself was elected to parliament as a Conservative. He has also made no secret of the fact that he voted Remain and that his wife’s car sports a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker. In other words they suspect him of pursuing a policy objective. Speakers are not allowed to do that. Their job is simply to preside over the proceedings of the Commons.
Crispin Blunt, the former Tory minister, expressed this sentiment when he said in the chamber on Wednesday that the Speaker’s recent behaviour had left ‘many of us with an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs is no longer neutral’. One minister is reported to have said that Mr Bercow’s actions were “repulsive beyond measure” and that he was a “biased f*ckwit”.
However, support for Mr Bercow came from a perhaps unexpected source, the arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said he was a ‘great admirer’ of the Speaker as a ‘House of Commons champion’. He said: ‘I happen to think on this occasion the Speaker came to the wrong interpretation, but that doesn’t mean I think he is not a fair Speaker and a good Speaker’.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Bercow’s ruling will have an appreciable effect on the Brexit process. It may have less than some expect. It has been widely reported that the Prime Minister was already preparing to act quickly if she’s defeated next week, so the fact that she is now required to do so in three days rather than three weeks may make little difference. But what the government’s double defeat in the Commons this week shows is that MPs now seem ready to take action to resolve the seeming impasse over Brexit and it may soon become not quite so easy for Mrs May to claim that the only alternative to her deal is a no-deal Brexit. Already it is reported that rebel Tory Remainers are having discussions with the Labour frontbench on how they might proceed together.
Meanwhile, Mr Bercow seems likely to face a motion of no confidence in his remaining as Speaker. He has already stayed in the chair longer than he promised to do, has alienated many women MPs with his handling of the issue of misogyny, bullying and intimidation in the Commons, and relations with the government are now said to have broken down entirely. But his controversial decision this week will have created allies as well as irreconcilable opponents.
The question is: was he right to take the decision he took, or not?