The power of the Speaker of the House of Commons is often under-estimated – for a very good reason. Most who hold this ancient office know the importance of not being seen to interfere directly in the politics of the issues of the day and so usually don’t trouble the headline writers.
John Bercow, however, has demonstrated on a number of occasions that he is not afraid to do just that. And yesterday he made a ruling that has thrown Theresa May’s attempts to pass her Brexit deal with the EU into disarray.
Amid signs that hardline Brexiteers were beginning to crumble, belatedly accepting the reality that their fanciful demands were never going to be met and that May’s deal was the only realistic one on offer, the UK Government had started to believe they might have a chance of finally getting it through the Commons. But then, with 11 days to go before the UK leaves the EU without any kind of deal, Bercow announced that the Government could not legitimately “resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week which was rejected by 149 votes”.
Parliamentary convention dating back to 1604, he argued, prevented this on the grounds that allowing repeated votes on the same issue would enable governments to misuse MPs’ time and ignore their decisions.
However, critics of his decision pointed to a considerably more recent opinion – from Bercow himself – that suggested he might be playing politics. “If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change,” he told MPs in January.
And it should go without saying that these are “unprecedented” times where the most important thing is the national interest – not parliamentary traditions. Only in similarly high-stakes situations would any future Government be able to cite this as a precedent.
Bercow, who has revealed he had voted Remain, may believe he is defending the Commons’ rules; others will suspect he hopes defeating May’s deal will lead to a second referendum.
If the latter is true, he is playing a dangerous game of roulette that could well result in the worst of all outcomes – a no-deal Brexit. A delay and a second referendum would indeed be the best way out of our current mess, but MPs need to come to this conclusion themselves, not be bounced into it by the Speaker.