In ruling that the Prime Minister cannot ask MPs to vote on her Brexit deal for a third time without substantial changes, the Speaker has, unsurprisingly, prompted a wide range of reactions. Not all of them are positive, with the Government quick to complain that John Bercow’s dramatic intervention was made without prior warning.
However, Labour MP Chris Bryant raised the issue in the Commons last week when he tabled, and later withdrew, an amendment which highlighted the key Erskine May pages, and just last week the Speaker suggested that such a ruling “might be required at some point in the future.” The ruling, described by Bercow as a “very strong” convention dating back to 1604, is set out in black and white in Erskine May, the Parliamentary guidebook. Ultimately Bercow is right to argue that the will of the House has to be respected.
Last year, however, the then-Clerk of the House told MPs that the convention came with a greater degree of flexibility than Bercow has ruled.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons EU exit committee, David Natzler noted that “there is a general rule against being asked to decide again on the same question in the same Session, but that rule is not designed to obstruct the will of the House.” He then went on to suggest that rules “are there for a purpose, and it is the purpose that has to be looked at.”
If the Government thought that would give them more wriggle room, Natzler also pointed out that the convention could still come into play if “not only was the motion the same but the underlying political reality was the same”. And, crucially, he also told the committee that he did “not want to speculate on various things the chair might do.”
So how can the Government respond? In the same evidence session, Natzler also pointed to the simplest solution: if it is the will of House to vote again, then the Government can explicitly set aside this rule in the business motion that would tee up the third meaningful vote.
John Bercow has, proactively, chosen a hard interpretation of the rules. However, if the actual substance of the deal is unaltered but the circumstances surrounding it have changed, the House could find a way to vote again on the Government’s deal if that was its will. However, time is running out and the Government, which had ample warning that this ruling could be made, must not waste more crucial parliamentary hours.