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9 January 2019

What does John Bercow’s unprecedented action mean for Brexit – and for him?

The Speaker’s decision has no root in precedent but he is relying on the one rule that really matters in the British constitution. 

By Stephen Bush

John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, has shocked Westminster by accepting Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the government’s motion, which means the government will have just three working days to respond to the (near-certain) defeat of the withdrawal agreement, as opposed to the 21 day period it currently has.

The Speaker’s actions were surprising because, according to convention and precedent, motions of this type had been previously treated as unamendable. This is important for Brexit because now it has passed, it is harder for the government to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit to win support for the exit deal negotiated by Theresa May.

As far as the British constitution goes, however, the implications are being overexaggerated: talk of a “constitutional crisis” is wildly overcooked. It is true to say that you cannot really make an argument that Bercow’s action is supported by precedent or the rules of the House. What matters is if they are supported by the one rule of British politics that does matter: do you have a majority in the House of Commons? If you have a majority in the House of Commons, it doesn’t matter if you are found to have misled MPs, provided that majority is willing to sustain you in office. It doesn’t matter if you are upending centuries of precedent, because the only precedent that matters in our constitution is that Parliament can do whatever it wants.

Far from being a crisis, this is the constitution working normally, albeit in a more high-octane manner than it would: a straightforward showdown between the executive and the legislature, with the only question that matters which of the two can command a majority of MPs to vote its way.

Bercow’s gamble was that he is protected by a double majority: that a majority of MPs will vote for Grieve’s amendment, meaning that he can say he is acting as he should as Speaker, and facilitating the will of the house, and that furthermore, he is protected by a majority of MPs who believe that he is on their side against the executive. Had that gamble been lost, Bercow would certainly have faced an organised and potentially successful attempt to oust him as Speaker. But it wasn’t, so he survives, protected by the one rule in Westminster that really matters.

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But I’m not sure that the gamble will work out that well for Grieve himself and the other supporters of another In-Out referendum. Why? Well, because while they don’t agree with Theresa May on much, they do share an interest: which is to run out the clock to the point where they can cobble together a majority in parliament to secure another referendum, something they are presently not in a position to do. By shortening the amount of time that May has to delay, Grieve has also made it less likely that a parliamentary majority for a second referendum will ever emerge.