If more proof is needed that the Marxist view of history is utterly discredited, we offer you as evidence…John Bercow. Were the Speaker almost anyone else, there would be no prospect of Commons’ procedure rules being rewritten off the cuff. Were there no prospect of Commons’ procedure rules being rewritten off the cuff, the Cooper amendment would stand no chance of achieving its aim – namely, to extend the Brexit deadline by means of a private members’ bill if no deal has been agreed by the end of February. And were the Cooper amendment to stand no chance of achieving its aim, the odds of a Brexit extension would be dramatically reduced.
It is the certainty of Bercow recasting the rules to help forestall Brexit that has raised the possibility of the Government responding by proroguing Parliament altogether, on the ground that illegitimate measures require desperate counter-measures. This would drag the Queen, who has body-swerved political controversy during her immaculately-conducted reign of over 60 years, into the eye of a public maelstrom during its twilight. It is hard to believe that she would have spoken as she did last week were this not the case.
So this chain of events turns out to be the product of the character, frustrations and resentments of one man – not the inexorable forces of class struggle and historical materialism.
As Tuesday’s Commons votes loom, it is sensible to presume that the Speaker will behave this week exactly as he did less than a fortnight ago. He prepared the way for the Government’s record defeat by not selecting the so-called Murrison amendment, which was helpful to Ministers. And he had a point in arguing privately that if the Government wants to put a proposal to the House it should do so itself. It doesn’t follow that because the referee is biased – as in this case – every single decision he makes is mistaken.
That amendment, which would provide a cut-off date for the backstop, is still floating around. So is a proposal backed by Graham Brady and Damian Green to replace the backstop with other means of minimising the effects of Brexit on the UK-Ireland land border. Green and other May-friendly Soft Brexiteers will be in conversation with May-friendly harder Brexiteers to find an amendment that works for the Government and can then be carried. After all, the Prime Minister’s thinking seems to be that the EU won’t make concessions, on the backstop or anything else, until it sees that the Commons is prepared to support something. If so, this logic is sound.
Both the main parties have a big choice to make as Tuesday approaches. For Labour, Jeremy Corbyn will be asking himself whether his party can support the Cooper amendment, thereby probably enabling it to pass, without setting a precedent for a future Labour Government. For if private bills can be used to wreck the plans of a Conservative-led Government, there is no instrinsic reason why they can’t be used to wreck those of a Labour one. His Blairite and Brownite enemies could use the device to block socialism (as he sees it).
For the Conservatives, May will be pondering the likelihood of the Speaker not selecting backbench amendments designed to help her. It follows as the day the night that the Government must table its own backstop-related amendment to its own neutrally-termed motion. It will need to be robust – concentrated perhaps on the unilteral right of the UK to leave the arrangement if no other can be found.
If so, the European Research Group and other committed Brexiteers are likely to back it. So are Tory Soft Brexiteers and Remainers – on the ground that the EU is likely to reject it; that the Prime Minister will then be forced back to square one, and that she will then have no option other than to resume cross-party talks that will probably settle on a Norway-flavoured solution.
But perhaps the EU won’t reject it – at least, not entirely. The jitters in Ireland last week, the recent intervention of Germany’s Foreign Minister, rumblings from Poland and rumours from the Commission suggest that the EU may be prepared to compromise. Maybe – and maybe not. A Government amendment is not the best plan in the world but it would be the best plan that May has got.