Plans by British Prime Minister Theresa May to put her controversial withdrawal deal to MPs this week or next suffered a significant blow, as the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, made a surprise statement confirming that the same question could not be put to the House repeatedly during the same session.
While he said that his statement was not intended to be the “final word”, it indicated that this was the rule the government would have to meet. This means that the deal is unlikely to be put to MPs this week, ahead of a meeting of the European Council.
Hope for concessions
Ms. May had hoped to put the withdrawal deal to MPs before that meeting to be able to show to the EU that progress had been made, and potentially sway it to make further concessions or clarifications.
“Decisions of the House matter. They have weight. They have direct effects not only here but also on the lives of our constituents,” Mr. Bercow told MPs in response to several questions about whether the government could repeatedly put the “same fundamental proposition” to them again.
Quoting from Erskine May, the 19th century originator of parliamentary practice and rules, Mr. Bercow said that the second vote on the withdrawal agreement earlier this month had been permissible because the deal on offer had been substantially different to what had been voted on in January. It followed legally binding changes that had been made after a meeting in Strasbourg between Ms. May and European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker.
However, the deal, if put to a vote again, would have to meet the same criteria, he told MPs on Monday afternoon, in a surprise development that could stand in the way not only of a vote this week, but also one next week.
While Ms. May had been expected to lose the vote this week, there has been much speculation that she could return to the House of Commons in an attempt to put the deal to MPs once again next week, just days before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29. While MPs last week voted to delay Brexit — either till June 30 or potentially longer — a delay can only happen if the EU agrees to it. It has indicated that that would only happen if there was credible justification.
Coaxing the MPs
Mr. Bercow’s intervention potentially puts a spanner in the works of what Ms. May’s critics believe is a strategy of trying to bulldoze MPs to support the deal. The government has been in talks with a number of parties, including the Democratic Unionist Party, which has been critical of the Irish backstop — the arrangement to ensure that no hard border develops in Ireland. Some critics of Ms. May appeared to waver, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said that while no deal was better than a bad deal, a bad deal was “better than staying in the EU.”
However, other Brexiteers remained opposed, such as Boris Johnson, who in an article in The Daily Telegraph urged MPs not to back Ms. May’s deal, and urged her to return to Brussels and push for changes to the backstop arrangements before putting it to MPs again.