In an announcement that ambushed her Government, the Commons Speaker claimed parliamentary precedent stretching back to 1604 prevented governments from repeatedly putting the same measure before MPs. His extraordinary decision from the Speaker’s Chair, just 11 days before the scheduled exit date of March 29, was seen as another shattering blow to the Prime Minister’s desperate drive to win the backing of MPs for her deal. Solicitor General Robert Buckland said the ruling would have “huge reverberations” for the Brexit process.
“We are in a major constitutional crisis here,” he said. “We are talking about hours to March 29. Frankly we could have done without this.
“Now we have this ruling to deal with, it is clearly going to require a lot of very fast but very deep thought in the hours ahead.”
Another ministerial source accused Mr Bercow of “breaking the constitution”.
And Rory Stewart, another minister, likened the Speaker to the pompous character of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean’,” the prisons minister quoted from the children’s classic.
Downing Street officials admitted to being caught unawares by the Speaker’s move.
There was no immediate response from Downing Street to the statement by Mr Bercow.
“The Speaker did not warn us of the contents of the statement or indeed the fact that he was making one,” said the Prime Minister’s spokesman.
Bercow was likened to Humpty Dumpty
Mr Bercow’s salvo came as Mrs May continued her effort to try to win over MPs to her deal ahead of an EU summit on Thursday where she is expected to formally request a Brexit deal.
She had hoped to put her deal, rejected overwhelmingly in two previous Commons “meaningful votes” again today but put the plan on hold following concerns among ministers it would be voted down again.
The Speaker’s decision deepened doubts about a fresh attempt to overturn the opposition of MPs.
Addressing MPs yesterday afternoon, the Speaker cited the Commons rulebook “Erskine May” as the authority to his ruling that a defeated motion cannot be brought back in the same form during the course of a parliamentary session.
He insisted a second vote on the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement had been permitted in March because the package had been substantially revised since its initial defeat by 230 votes in January.
“If the Government wishes to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the House on March 12, this would be entirely in order,” the Speaker told MPs.
Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom
“What the Government cannot legitimately do is re-submit to the House the same proposition – or substantially the same proposition – as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes.
“This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject. It is simply meant to indicate the test which the Government must meet in order for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held in this parliamentary session.”
In chaotic scenes, the Speaker then faced nearly an hour of points of order from MPs trying to make sense of his ruling.
He also clashed with Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, who accused him of failing to show “courtesy and respect” to MPs.
The Cabinet minister rejected a call from the Lib Dems for a “Speakers Conference” gathering to try to resolve the Brexit crisis.
Ms Leadsom, who has had a long-running feud with the Speaker, told him: “I just want to be very clear, I am indeed a reforming Leader of the House of the Commons, and for me, treating colleagues with courtesy and respect is at the forefront of that reform, and any Speaker’s Conference would have to have that at its heart and I simply would not be confident that that would be the case.”
Mr Bercow hit back: “I treat the House with respect, I’ve treated its members with respect. I chaired a previous Speaker’s Conference and there was no criticism of the way in which I did so.”
Whitehall insiders accused Mr Bercow of attempting to force the Prime Minister into seeking a lengthy Brexit delay.
“It seems clear that the Speaker’s motive here is to rule out a meaningful vote this week,” said one Government source, adding that blocking a vote would also hamper her hopes of keeping any extension of the EU’s Article 50 process short.
“It leads you to believe what he really wants is a longer extension, where Parliament will take over the process and force a softer form of Brexit.
“But anyone who thinks that this makes no deal more likely is mistaken — the Speaker wouldn’t have done it if it did,” the source said.
Ministers continued to hold talks with MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party yesterday to try to resolve the row about the “backstop” mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement. Ministers hope getting DUP support could help win over Tory Brexiteers.
But Tory opponents of the deal appeared to be hardening their resistance yesterday.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said putting the deal to MPs again without changes from Brussels would be “absurd”.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers, claimed there were some “cautious signs of encouragement”.
He added: “There is a lot more work to do.”
Tory Brexiteers last night welcomed the Speaker’s decision as a potential step towards the final dumping of Mrs May’s deal and a no-deal Brexit.
Former Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson said the ruling was a “game-changer” that would “concentrate minds” of EU leaders.
Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, said the ruling made an “enormous amount of sense” given that the Brexit deal has been defeated twice and there would need to be a “substantial difference” to allow a third vote.
But Sir Stephen Laws, a fellow at think tank Policy Exchange and a former parliamentary lawyer, said: “If there is a majority for the deal, preventing the vote would be to frustrate the will of the House.
“It would be deeply concerning to see a Speaker act in such a way.
“Those who are opposed to the deal should want to win with a majority on the substance, not by procedural manoeuvring or on a technicality, and the Speaker should allow that.”