Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.
Yesterday, and for the second time in two days, the Government lost a vote. Yet this defeat was was directly attributable to the decision by the Speaker to allow an amendment to be tabled and voted on, contrary to the existing ‘rule book’ of the Commons. This article looks at what the Speaker’s decision means for the Commons, what it means for Brexit, and what it means for the Speaker himself.
What does it mean for the Commons?
The Grieve amendment and the subsequent vote was about process – how the next five days of debate will happen, what the rules are for that debate, and what happens if the Government loses the meaningful vote next Tuesday.
As the Government had delayed the vote from before Christmas, a new Business Motion was needed. The Government tabled its motion, which was to be taken ‘forthwith’, and this is the word which the whole row hinges on. For non-procedural people, this means in Parliamentary terms that a motion must be put for a decision by the Commons ‘without debate or amendment’, and its usage is common practice.
Erskine May, the authoritative work on parliamentary procedure, states that questions forthwith “must be put without any possibility of amendment.”
Dominic Grieve tabled an amendment seeking to force the Government to return to the Commons inside three sitting days if it lost next week’s vote. Under the Commons rule book, because the Government’s new Business Motion was to be taken without amendment or debate, this should have simply been ignored. Instead the Speaker overruled the advice of the Clerk of the Commons and insisted that he would allow the amendment. The Government lost the subsequent vote by 308 votes to 297.
This may seem like a niche issue, but as the subsequent hour long session of questions to the Speaker proved, his decision has serious implications.
- Erskine May is clear that the Speaker’s ruling was incorrect – and he knew it. So now we have a situation where the Speaker – meant to be an impartial arbiter of Parliamentary procedure – is openly interpreting Standing Orders (the Commons rule book) to suit his own ends. MPs, if they even thought so before, cannot trust that the Speaker is impartial.
- Grieve was allowed to successfully table his amendment but other MPs were not. Grieve succeeded at the Speaker’s intervention, yet other MPs, such as Peter Bone and opposition parties, were told by the clerks that amendments were not allowed, and so didn’t. Yet the Speaker made no effort to inform MPs of his decision to break with precedent, Standing Orders, and Erskine May.
- MPs now know that they no longer can rely on any clerk’s advice. Instead they can simply go to the Speaker and potentially get a ruling overturned.
- MPs queued up today to understand what this new ruling about the use of ‘forthwith’ meant. In response to Iain Duncan Smith, the Speaker clearly had no idea, stated that he would reflect on the matter, and blithely queried why MPs should believe that he should have “immediate and comprehensive knowledge of all circumstances that might subsequently unfold.” Instead he promised to refer it to the Procedure Committee, but unless the Committee does a rapid inquiry, this looks like kicking this into the long grass.
- The Government risks losing control of its business. With the Speaker in a mood to interpret what he likes, there are concerns that he will allow amendments to be tabled to any Bill that might try to scupper Brexit. That will probably mean that the Government will have to pull legislation, such as the Immigration, Fisheries and Agriculture Bills, meaning these sectors could be unprepared for a No Deal Brexit.
What does it mean for Brexit?
However much the Speaker may wish to reinterpret the Commons rule book, the fact remains that under current legislation, the UK will exit the EU on 29th March on No Deal WTO terms, unless MPs can agree on a Withdrawal Agreement.
This could be Theresa May’s deal, or another deal, but MPs must:
- Agree on what the alternative to May’s deal is (no easy matter),
- Get the agreement of the Government,
- Get the agreement of the European Union,
- Pass legislation through both the Commons and the Lords to give it legal effect.
This must all happen before 29th March, unless the Government seeks to extend Article 50 (essentially moving the leaving date later into 2019). However, extension would require agreement from the European Union. The Government could also unilaterally revoke Article 50 – but MPs on their own could not do so. Whatever the Speaker may choose to do, motions or resolutions in the Commons cannot override legislation.
What does it mean for the Speaker?
The Speaker has always had the full support of the Labour Party, but even opposition parties were taken aback by his ruling today – one source said that his ruling was “ridiculous” and he’s “spent all of his political capital and more. He’s now living on the political capital equivalent of a Wonga loan”. The Speaker has also assiduously courted support amongst independently minded backbenchers such as Bone, Bernard Jenkin and Jacob Rees-Mogg, yet all three were openly critical of his ruling today. On the Conservative benches, he is perhaps only supported by Christopher Chope and one or two others.
Yet this is not enough to seriously challenge the Speaker. The Conservatives are in a minority Government, without enough support from MPs on other benches to contemplate removing him. It’s clear that the Speaker has spent a long time waiting for this moment, and he’s going to enjoy it to the full. He has almost no check on his power, and as one Government source put it to me today, the next few weeks and months are going to be “trench warfare”.