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21 October 2019

The government’s stand-off with John Bercow is an attempt to spin defeat as victory

No one in Downing Street can have credibly expected the Speaker would do anything but reject the motion.

By George Grylls

Dominic Cummings must have been chuckling into his cornflakes on Sunday morning, when the papers read pretty astonishingly

Make no mistake about it, Saturday was a defeat for the government, yet the setback had been successfully manipulated into series of helpful headlines. “The House of Fools,” crowed the Mail on Sunday. “Boris fights ‘Brexit wreckers’ with three defiant letters to EU,” ran the Sunday Times.

Today provided another opportunity for the government to make the best of a bad result. A fourth meaningful vote was tabled — effectively a re-run of not-so-Super Saturday. And, as expected, Speaker John Bercow vetoed the government’s tabling of the same bill.

According to the parliamentary rulebook Erskine May, a motion or amendment that has already been decided on cannot be heard again during the same parliamentary session. Bercow cited the same rule earlier this year to halt the repeated meaningful votes on May’s deal.

In conventional politics this all looks a little humiliating for the government. The Labour MP Kevin Brennan described the government’s actions as “low rate jiggery pokery”.

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So what then is the government up to? Johnson did not even turn up to listen to Bercow’s judgement. If he knew that Bercow would rule against him why table the motion?

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“Manifestly when I make a judgement,” said Bercow, “some people are pleased and some people are displeased.” Usually, yes. But not so this time. This time it was grins all round.

Arcane parliamentary procedure is useful to the Prime Minister. Downing Street reckons that, come the election, Johnson will be rewarded if parliament is depicted as fusty and petulant — and in parts of the media John Bercow has become the very embodiment of that.

“People who are wanting to amend legislation are ultimately wanting to frustrate, delay or cancel Brexit altogether,” said treasury minister Rishi Sunak on the Today programme this morning. This was just the latest example of the same old language. It is the language of a people versus parliament election.

Thus far the strategy has succeeded. Since Johnson came to power the Conservatives have taken a decisive lead in the polls. Most analyses of voting intention have the government at least ten points ahead.

For the government to bring back the same bill without any substantial changes looks cynical. Why? Because Bercow’s upholding of Erskine May can be framed as yet more parliamentary dither and delay. What ought to be a loss can be transformed into a victory. Do not be surprised if tomorrow’s headline writers oblige.