By Charlie Cooper
Theresa May’s government cannot hold a third vote on its Brexit deal without securing a “demonstrable change” agreed with the EU, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow ruled, throwing the government’s plans into further chaos.
In an announcement that took MPs by surprise, Bercow said that according to parliamentary conventions dating as far back as 1604, the government could not hold repeated votes in the House of Commons, in the same parliamentary session, on a motion that was the “same in substance.”
After her deal was heavily voted down in January and then again last week, May had kept the option open of bringing it back to the House of Commons for a third time before this week’s European Council summit where, in the absence of a ratified deal, she will request a potentially lengthy extension to the Article 50 negotiating period, delaying Brexit and forcing the U.K. to participate in the European election.
Ministers had said that a third vote would only be attempted this week if the government was confident it could win. Bercow’s ruling appears to have buried any prospect of a vote this week altogether.
As speaker, Bercow’s interpretations of House of Commons conventions are essentially binding unless and until the Commons votes as a majority to break with an established convention.
It is also possible that the government could in theory bring back largely the same deal, but with additional side agreements with the EU, or potentially changes to the non-binding Political Declaration on the future relationship. Bercow said he would “have to look at the particulars” of any such changes to rule whether they were “in order.”
“I do think a demonstrable change to the proposition would be required,” he said when asked by Labour MP Hilary Benn whether a new vote would require changes agreed with the EU. “For example, simply a change in an opinion about something wouldn’t itself constitute a change in the offer. So I would have to look at the particulars.”
The latter comment appears to refer to speculation that the government will preempt a third Brexit vote with a further legal opinion from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said that the speaker “did not forewarn us of the content of his statement nor that he was making one.”
In a tense exchange, Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom questioned the speaker’s “courtesy and respect” for colleagues. Bercow said he was “under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to pre-announce” his statements to government or to the opposition party.
Bercow said that the changes to the deal between the first so-called meaningful vote, in January, and the second, last week, amounted to a “different proposition” being put before MPs, and therefore that repeat vote was acceptable under conventions set out in the 1844 guide to parliamentary procedures known as Erskine May.
Asked by Conservative MP John Whittingdale whether, if the government could secure some new agreement with the EU at this week’s summit, this would meet the test of being a new proposition, Bercow said: “If there is a substantially different proposition put as a result of revisions sought and obtained and new agreement reached that would constitute a new proposition to be put to the House.”
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