This site is unlikely ever to be a founding member of the John Bercow Fan Club. He doesn’t command the confidence of one of the two main parties – the Conservatives – and for that reason shouldn’t stay in post at all. He took lip-smacking pleasure in rubbing a barrel-load of salt into the Government’s wounds yesterday afternoon. But they were none the less not of his making. Indeed, they were self-inflicted.
The story behind his chiding of the Government front bench, and of the furore that followed, begins with the motion that was put down for debate. When the Commons last discussed the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) in July, it was in the context of a motion for the adjournment on “the UK’s Justice and Home Affairs Opt-outs”. The debate took place on a Thursday afternoon, when many MPs would already have left for their constituencies. Two Ministerial statements were made before the motion was considered, which reduced the time available for discussion. The EAW was evidently not a subject the executive wanted the legislature to probe at length – or vote on.
Indeed, it was clearly not one it wanted considered at all, in a certain sense. The very first intervention in Theresa May’s presentation of the motion, from Sir Edward Leigh, was a complaint about its generality – since the EAW was subsumed into discussion of 35 criminal justice measures which the Government wants to opt back into – and the lack of an opportunity for a vote. Sir Edward asked the Home Secretary to give the Commons an assurance that there would later be “a substantive vote after a proper debate”. May replied that “the House will have the opportunity to vote on this matter in due course”. In the Commons last week, David Cameron confirmed that “we are going to have a vote, we are going to have it before the Rochester byelection”.
A motion was duly tabled for yesterday. It proposed no separate debate on the EAW, let alone a vote on it. Instead, it was once bundled into a discussion of the 35 measures – plus a vote on all of them at once. I asked friends of Mrs May about this plan on Sunday evening. They were adamant that the measures were inextricably linked – and it was therefore not possible for any of them, including the EAW, to be debated and voted on one at a time.
As I pointed out yesterday morning, the European Scrutiny Committee, under the Chairmanship of Bill Cash, disagreed. At the same time, the Times was reporting (£) – ominously for the Government – that he had been joined by two Select Committee Chairman from other parties: Keith Vaz of the Home Affairs Committee, and Alan Beith of the Justice Committee. All three had been studying the motion carefully – as had members of the Conservative European Reform Group.
These different people and interests duly coverged on the Speaker, and pointed out that only 11 of the 35 measures actually required a vote yesterday. Government sources are claiming that the Speaker didn’t complain when this was originally raised with him. But whatever happened, he can scarcely be blamed for telling the Commons yesterday that the promised vote on the EAW simply hadn’t materialised. May – exposed and embarrassed – then told the Commons that although there would indeed be no vote on the EAW, the Government would treat any voting-down of the 11 measures as a voting-down of the EAW. In effect, she was saying that the House would be voting on the EAW without it actually voting on it at all. This struck many Tory backbenchers as improper – and sharp practice.
The Government’s business motion – that’s to say, the motion confirming the way in which the debate on the 11 measures was to be held – squeaked through by a mere nine votes. Yvette Cooper and Labour, revelling in Tory discord, tried to postpone the actual vote on those measures altogether. Her gambit failed. The eventual Conservative rebellion against the 11 measures – their only means of protesting against the EAW – was not much larger than had been anticipated. The question that follows is obvious. Given that there were fewer than 50 rebels, would the Government not have been better off, for its own purposes, in having the separate debate on the EAW it was so reluctant to stage?
Yesterday afternoon was a classic illustration of “purposes mistook/ Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads”. So who was responsible? The Speaker is no friend of Michael Gove, and will have enjoyed the discomforture of the Conservative whips as the scuttled frantically round the chamber seeking to postpone the vote on the business motion. But the Whips Office is adamant is that it was not to blame for the original motion put down for debate.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Home Secretary wanted to avoid a vote on the EAW yesterday, and that the original motion reflected this desire. Arguably, it has left the Government open to legal challenge – since there has been no vote to approve or disapprove the EAW per se, but the Government is now set on signing up to it none the less. May will argue that she bent over backwards to ensure that the Commons had a chance to discuss the EAW on the floor rather than in committee. But this won’t wash. There would have been uproar had the Government tried to take that course, as she well knows.
Yesterday’s fracas thus highlighted once again the tensions between the Home Secretary and the Chief Whip. May’s critics will say that it cast a searching light on her, too. They argue that her instincts are authoritarian and her actions narrow: that she has made the Home Office a baronial fastness, independent of the wishes of Downing Street. This site’s readers don’t seem to agree. May is once again top of our future Party leader poll. I explored her record as a reformer only a fortnight ago. On police reform, stop and search, and the control of non-EU immigration, she has carved out real achievements. But her handling of the EAW is a blot on her manuscript.