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20 March 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 4:51pm

No matter how many MPs blame Bercow, Theresa May is the cause of her own misfortune

By Stephen Bush

John Bercow, the Speaker, is like electoral reform: politicians’ affection for both increases the further away they are from power. Only the political circumstances of 2009, when the Labour Party was in office and in possession of a large majority but knew full well that its likely fate at the next election was opposition, could ever have made him Speaker. (In a sign of Labour’s diminished sense of power, the party also included a commitment to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system in its 2010 manifesto.) Only the repeated failure of any party in the past decade to secure a decent parliamentary majority has kept John Bercow in place.

When he arrived at the Speaker’s residence, his first instruction to the clerks was to find ways that he could make life difficult for the Labour government, something almost every Conservative MP enjoyed at the time. That is the golden thread that runs through his decisions as Speaker: to facilitate the fullest expression of the will of the House and to give the executive a hard time.

MPs tend to convince themselves that when Bercow rules in their favour it is because he shares their politics. When he allowed an unprecedented third amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting the lack of legislation committing to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2013, some Labour MPs fulminated that the Speaker – who started out on the right of the Conservative Party – was reverting to type.

On 18 March, Bercow announced that he would follow the long-established precedent that the House of Commons cannot be asked to consider the same question twice, and would therefore block Theresa May from holding a third vote on her withdrawal deal without “substantive” changes to it. This led ministers privately to rage that the Speaker was an unregenerate Remainer who wanted to frustrate or stop Brexit. As a result, dislike of Bercow, is, as one minister quipped, “about the only thing [they] can agree on” around the cabinet table.

Yet the truth is that Bercow was fulfilling his long-term political mission: to advance the interests of the House over that of the government. That’s not Bercow’s only political mission: he is genuinely committed to making the Commons more family-friendly. Several MPs with small children remain supportive of him because before the last election he took pains to let them know that should they lose their seats – and thereby their income – their children could continue to use the Commons crèche. But in this latest case, it is his role as shop steward for the will of the House that is motivating him, rather than any desire to delay or thwart Brexit.

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Equally importantly, if the government had the votes to pass May’s deal, it could simply override the Speaker by asking MPs to vote to bring it back to the House. The reason the Prime Minister has instead written to the European Union seeking an extension to the Brexit process is that there is not a majority of MPs who are willing to vote for her deal, and there may well never be one.

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May’s problem is twofold. The first is that there are simply too many opponents of the deal on her own side to pass it without the support of the opposition. By any measure, there are at least 20 committed pro-Leave Tories who will vote against any Brexit deal, even if an agreement can be reached with the DUP. In addition, of the seven committed Labour Brexiteers who usually pad the government’s majority on Brexit issues, only two believe that May’s deal is the best way to leave the bloc.

And Labour’s long-term Leavers know full well that there is no majority to be found within the Labour ranks for a second referendum.

The government’s problems don’t just end on the Leaver side. The five committed Conservative supporters of a second referendum are committed to voting against May’s deal. If May wants to alarm Labour MPs into making up the gap, she will need to keep the risk of a no-deal Brexit alive. But parliament now believes that a no-deal Brexit is, in effect, impossible – so those Labour MPs won’t be coming to May’s rescue either.

If not May’s deal, then what? MPs have consistently voted to deplore a no-deal Brexit, but it remains the only outcome that has successfully made it to the statute book. There is no majority for a second referendum: a critical minority of Labour MPs will never vote for it and on the Conservative side, the fear among MPs of being deselected if they are seen to stop Brexit – let alone what it will do to their electoral hopes in general – means that the extra votes are not going to come from there either.

The softer Brexit favoured by the cross-party Common Market 2.0 group might be able to command a fragile majority in the Commons, which is one reason why Jeremy Corbyn has put out feelers to the ringleaders. But the gaggle of anti-Brexit parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, as well the Independent Group and Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP – have so ardently opposed Brexit that many of them believe it would be “political suicide” to vote for any Brexit accord.

It all comes back to the fundamental Brexit problem, which is not the Speaker, but the basic fact that no faction or party has a reliable majority for its preferred Brexit end-state, and that it is impossible to facilitate the will of the Commons when it is so divided and uncertain as to what that will is. In this context, the decade of hard work that John Bercow has put in to reduce the executive’s power pales into insignificance when compared to the damage inflicted by Theresa May over the course of six weeks of her botched general election campaign in the summer of 2017.

This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency