UK Speaker John Bercow blocks more votes on unchanged Brexit deal
The Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons has thrown a constitutional curve ball into the Brexit process.
Citing a convention that dates back to 1604, John Bercow thwarted an attempt by Prime Minister Theresa May to hold another vote on her beleaguered Brexit bill this week.
The letter as reported from mirror.co.uk ” There has been much speculation over the past week about the possibility of the government bringing before the House a motion on Brexit for another so-called Meaningful Vote under the statutory framework provided in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018.
On March 13, however, [Angela Eagle MP] asked on a point of order whether it would be proper for the government to keep bringing the same deal back to the house ad infinitum.
I replied that no ruling was necessary at that stage but that one might be required at some point in the future.
Subsequently members on both sides of the house and indeed on both sides of the Brexit argument have expressed their concerns to me about the house being repeatedly asked to pronounce on the same fundamental proposition.
The 24th edition of Erskine May states on p397 that, and I quote, a motion or an amendment which is the same in substance as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.
It goes on to state that, and I quote, attempts have been made to evade this rule by raising again with verbal alterations the essential portions of motions which have been negatived.
Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgement of the chair.
This convention is very strong and of long standing, dating back to 2 April 1604.
Last Thursday [Chris Bryant] quoted examples of occasions when the ruling had been re-asserted by four different Speakers of this House, notably in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912.
Each time the Speaker of the day ruled that a motion could not be brought back because it had already been decided in that same session of Parliament.
Indeed Erskine May makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920.
One of the reasons why the rule has lasted so long is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and the proper respect for the decisions which it takes.
Decisions of the House matter. They have weight. In many cases they have direct effects, not only here but on the lives of our constituents.
Absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention but to general compliance with it.
Thus, as Erskine May notes, the Public Bill Office has often disallowed Bills on the ground that a Bill with the same or very similar long title cannot be presented again in the same session.
So far as our present situation is concerned, let me summarise the chronology of events.
The draft EU Withdrawal Agreement giving effect to the deal between the government and the EU was published on November 14 and the agreement itself together with the accompanying political declaration on the future relationship received endorsement from the European Council on November 25.
The first scheduled vote on what I will hereafter refer to as ‘the deal’ was due to take place on December 11.
However, on December 10 the vote was postponed after 164 speeches had already been made over three of the five days allotted for the debate.
That postponement was not caused by me, nor by the House, but by the government.
Indeed I pointed out at the time that this was deeply discourteous to the House and I suggested that the permission of the House for that postponement should be sought. Regrettably, it was not.
Over five weeks later, following a further five day debate, the first meaningful vote was held on January 15, which the government lost by a margin of 230 votes – the largest in parliamentary history.
Subsequently the second meaningful vote was expected to take place in February but, once again, there was a postponement. It finally happened only last Tuesday, March 12.
The government’s motion on the deal was again very heavily defeated.
In my judgement that second meaningful vote motion did not fall foul of the convention about matters already having been decided during the same session.
This was because it could credibly be argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the House on January 15.
It contained a number of legal changes which the government considered to be binding and which had been agreed with the EU after further intensive discussions.
Moreover the government’s second meaningful vote motion was accompanied by the publication of three new documents – two issued jointly with the EU, and the third a unilateral declaration from the UK, not objected to by it.
In procedural terms it was therefore quite proper that the debate and the second vote took place last week.
The government responded to its defeat as it had promised to do by scheduling debates about a no deal Brexit and an Article 50 extension on March 13 and March 14 respectively.
It has been strongly rumoured, though I have not received confirmation of this, that third and even possibly fourth meaningful vote motions will be attempted.
Hence this statement, which is designed to signal what would be orderly and what would not.
This is my conclusion.
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