If no “meaningful vote” is held before March 29, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement becomes MPs’ Withdrawal Agreement – as follows. The Prime Minister agrees an extension with the EU this week. Parliament confirms it next week and removes the date of Brexit from the EU Withdrawal Bill by means of a statutory instrument. Either before or after the extension, a Letwin/Cooper alliance takes control of standing orders. Brexit then passes into the hands of the House, which plumps for Customs Union membership; or Norway Plus, or a Second Referendum.
This chain of events may or may not take place, but what matters today is that the Speaker clearly thinks that it will. Not even the mice in the Commons tea room believe he is an impartial umpire. Perhaps there won’t be a Softer Brexit if May’s deal fails to come back to the House. Maybe No Deal will instead slip through the procedural, timetabling and political cracks. Perhaps Parliament will be prorogued. Maybe MPs will stumble into the general election that they plainly doesn’t want. The Speaker’s gamble is that none of these events will happen and that, if there is no further meaningful vote, Brexit will soften further or vanish altogether. Which is what he wants.
Now it must be conceded that Bercow’s ruling – that the same Government motion should not be put to the Commons twice – has a point, and then some. As he said, the second meaningful vote was different from the first, in that Ministers had new documents to put to the House: the joint instrument, the unilateral Government declaration, and so on. But as far as we know, a third meaningful vote would not, as things stand, offer substantial change from the second. There is some back and forth at the margins about the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, but Geoffrey Cox has not changed his legal advice (as far as we know).
However, this is not the heart of the matter. Let’s return to the concept of substantial change. The Speaker will pronounce not only on the fact of any change but on its amount – in other words, on what change might or might not be substantial. This distinction crosses a line from fact to art. In consequence, Ministers must now seek changes to the deal, and hope that these can clear the bar which Bercow will set for them. We can expect him to place it very high indeed. How fast time moves! Only a few weeks ago, he told the Commons that “if we only went by precedent, manifestly nothing would ever change”. Then, he slighted precedent. Now, he embraces it – 1604 and all.
“I am the law,” the Lord Chancellor declares contemptuously in The Madness of King George. In his own mind at least, the Speaker is precedent. He is Erskine May. He is procedure. He can only be overuled by being deposed – which surely, since he is the creature of one of the two main parties, won’t happen. The crude effect of his ruling, crafted and sprung on a clueless Downing Street, is to make a third meaningful vote unlikely this week, and perhaps next week too. Number Ten will thrash around looking for ways out – prorogation, election, challenging what it will claim is inconsistency between Bercow’s treatment of motions and amendments.
Once upon a time, a boy – small; slow to learn to speak; unpopular – sat on the wall outside his parents’ house, almost hidden by the copy of The Times which he was reading. He may have dreamed, as small boys sometimes do, of revenge on those slighting him. At any rate, he made it to the Commons, and wanted to be Prime Minister. He fell out with his party. The call to Number Ten never came. But he could none the less still ache, in a diminished form, to be at the centre of events – shaping them; making history; being someone special. In January, he gave that yearning trial expression. Today, he has upped it to the next level. Those childhood fantasies are coming true.