Well that’s buggered that then. Today in the House of Commons the Speaker John Bercow blindsided Theresa May by telling her in no uncertain terms that her government can’t just keep bringing the same deal back to a vote in parliament in the hope that it will eventually get a different result to the two rejections it has already received. His decision has blown what passed for Theresa May’s strategy out of the water. That strategy was one of taking all the options off the table, until eventually MPs were left with just her deal. The speaker has now taken her deal off the table. Her tactic involved running down the ticking clock until enough MPs were alarmed into voting for her deal. John Bercow just silenced the clock.
A meaningful vote that has no effect other than to make the Prime Minister bring her deal back for yet another attempt is not a meaningful vote at all. John Bercow’s decision means that the meaningful vote held last week was a whole lot more meaningful than the Prime Minister had intended. She thought that she could keep returning for another go as often as she wanted. That was obvious from the language that she used when addressing the House in the immediate aftermath of her second defeat. She showed not the slightest awareness that her deal had been rejected and displayed every intention that, since she had just received the wrong answer, she was going to keep asking the question until she got the answer she wanted. And then she prattled on about respecting democracy. Self-awareness is not Theresa May’s strong suit.
There is a long standing parliamentary convention that a motion can’t be brought back for the consideration of the Commons if it has already been rejected earlier in the parliamentary session. Like all the conventions which underpin what passes for a constitution in the UK it’s not a law, but rather a tradition of practice which relies upon the willingness of governments and opposition to respect gentlemanly fair play. Or at least to repect fair play as far as other members of the British establishment are concerned, the rest of us have never enjoyed the same considerations. But that’s always been the British way.
This government hasn’t shown much interest in respecting those traditions. Might is right with Theresa May, and she’d have gotten away with it had she enjoyed a parliamentary majority. The British system allows, indeed encourages, the government of the day to act with the untrammelled powers of a dictator. If Theresa May had a majority, she would never have needed to keep bringing back her deal to parliament, because she’d have had the power to ram it through the first time. Theresa’s problem is that she persists in acting as though she has a majority and as though she has unlimited power, when she is in fact the head of a minority government which is riven with infighting and factionalism.
The effect of John Bercow’s ruling is unless there is major and substantive changes to the deal that it cannot be brought back for parliamentary consideration. Since the EU has already announced in no uncertain terms that it is done negotiating and the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation, Theresa May has no room left for movement. There is no new deal or substantially different deal that the government can bring before the Commons.
If Theresa May is still hell bent on bringing her deal back for another go, she has only two options left. She can call a general election, and hope to return with a majority in a new parliament. But that means she’ll have to ask for a lengthy extension to Article 50 from the EU, and the chances are that her exasperated party will seek to replace her with a different leader. Any general election will most certainly be fought over Brexit and would be an effective referendum on whether the electorate wants Brexit at all. The Conservatives might be facing a weak and ineffective Labour party, but that’s not who worries them. They’re far more worried by a resurgence of Ukip and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party.
The other option is so prorogue Parliament for a few days and then to recall it in a new session in which the clock has been reset and the Speaker can’t block a vote on the deal on the grounds that it has already been voted upon during the same parliamentary session. But that means that the government will have to request permission to prorogue Parliament from the Queen, who acts in such matters on the advice of the Speaker as well as the advice of the government of the day. Politicising the monarchy is a very high risk strategy.
Brexit was all about English nationalists wanting to restore full power to the UK. They kept banging on about the sovereignty of parliament while practising the untrammelled power of the executive. The great irony is that Brexit has now surrendered the fate of the UK to the 27 other members of the EU. They’re the ones who will decide what happens next. They’re the ones who will decide whether to grant an extension to Article 50 which is long enough for the UK to try and sort itself out, or whether to kick the UK out of Europe on Friday of next week with no deal at all.
The EU doesn’t want no deal any more than anyone in the UK with a modicum of common sense, which clearly doesn’t include sections of the right wing press, a large part of the Conservative party, and the swivel eyed spittle flecked Brextremists. That means that the chances are that we are now facing a lengthy extension to Article 50.
The only deal which has any chance of getting through the Commons is for May’s deal to be accepted conditionally on confirmation in a public vote, which requires an extension of Article 50 long enough for the vote to take place. The vote would have to be between no-deal, May’s deal, or remaining. It’s the only sensible way out of this mess. But there’s no guarantee that a government which is in thrall to those lacking in sense will embark upon the sensible course of action.
This is an unprecedented constitutional crisis. No one knows what’s going to happen. Our jobs, our security, our futures are all at stake. Back in 2014 Scotland was told that we needed the UK’s institutions to guarantee our democratic stability and security. How’s that working out for you all?
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