Has John Bercow really ruled out a third meaningful vote?

The Speaker has warned that Theresa May will require substantive change to the withdrawal agreement – which the EU will not offer – before another vote is held.

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John Bercow has ruled out allowing further meaningful votes on Theresa May’s Brexit deal unless it materially changes, in an intervention that will prove profoundly unhelpful for the government. 

In an unannounced statement to the Commons this afternoon, the Speaker said it would be out of order for the Prime Minister to seek MPs’ approval for the withdrawal agreement for a third time, as she had been widely expected to in the coming days. 

Citing Erskine May – the bible of parliamentary procedure – Bercow warned that the government could not bring back “the same” or “substantially the same proposition”. He went on to imply that only a “demonstrable change” to the withdrawal agreement, rather than a new interpretation of it, would be enough to allow the third or fourth vote Downing Street had anticipated would be necessary to finally pass it. 

In doing so, the Speaker set a bar that is almost certainly too high for ministers to reach: as far as the EU27 is concerned, the withdrawal agreement is closed and there is no possibility of the government securing the sort of change he has made a prerequisite for a new vote.

The move, though not unexpected, was overtly hostile to the government, who did not have advance sight of Bercow’s statement. It was also roundly endorsed by both Brexiteer and Remainer opponents of the Prime Minister’s deal. The former camp in particular had come to fear that May had succeeded in creating a binary choice between backing her deal at the third time of asking or forgoing Brexit entirely, and believe Bercow's intervention increases the chances of a no-deal outcome. 

A third vote is not entirely out of the question, however. The Commons itself, rather than Bercow, is the ultimate arbiter of its own rules. Ministers had already said over the weekend that they would not hold a third vote until such time they could win it. By that logic, they could also secure parliament’s consent for an attempt to disapply any ruling by Bercow against a third vote. 

Barring that, however, the government has limited recourse in the face of a parliament resolutely opposed to its will. One option could be to replace it with another by means of a general election. Another alternative floated by ministers in the wake of this afternoon’s statement has been the prorogation of parliament, which would see the government end the current session in a bid to circumvent Bercow’s bar on the government presenting the same proposition more than once within it. 

Such a move would risk politicising the Queen, who – acting on the advice of both the Speaker and prime minister – would have the ultimate say on whether the government was acting in good faith by seeking a prorogation. That it is being forced to consider such a drastic course of action speaks to the underlying problem that Bercow has been able to exploit: its lack of a reliable majority in the Commons. If it had one, then the Speaker's pronouncements could simply be voted away.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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