Brexit plot twist: 400-year-old parliamentary rule throws vote into chaos
In this photo provided by the UK Parliament, Speaker of the House John Bercow, center, talks, during the Brexit debate in the House of Commons, London, Thursday, March 14| UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor via AP

People’s World correspondent Al Neal is reporting from Europe during Britain’s supposed departure from the European Union, originally scheduled for March 29, though now delayed. His earlier coverage of Brexit is available here.

LONDON— It could have all been over today. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s twice rejected Brexit deal was tentatively scheduled for a third “meaningful vote” sometime this evening, and a third “meaningful” rejection by Members of Parliament was expected.

Instead, a war-weary May will leave for Brussels Thursday, March 21, seeking a lengthy delay to the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union—her plan for a third vote derailed by Speaker of the House John Bercow, citing another May: Thomas Erskine May, constitutional theorist, Clerk of the House of Commons, and revered authority in U.K. parliamentary procedure.

The wrecking ball of political fury crushed May’s “Plan B” EU withdrawal deal vote last Tuesday, but that wasn’t enough. The following day, the House of Commons voted to take a no-deal Brexit off the table—to the displeasure of many Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, and Thursday saw MPs approve a motion to ask the EU for an Article 50 extension to the March 29 U.K./EU divorce deadline.

The political roadblock for many Conservative MPs is the question on the Irish border (the so-called “backstop” issue). With the Republic of Ireland a member-state of the EU and Northern Ireland a part of the U.K., the fear for many pro-Brexit lawmakers is that Britain could end up trapped permanently in an EU customs union if no alternative trade deal is reached.

What is clear is that both sides do not want to see a return of a hard border between the two Irish territories, which could escalate tensions and see a possible return of violence. And while May presented a change to the legal language regarding the backstop language Tuesday before the meaningful vote, the “legal risk” remained unchanged—as did most of the deal, dooming its passage from the start.

Bercow’s surprise announcement and decision Monday afternoon came after “members on both sides of the house and indeed on both sides of the Brexit argument” expressed concerns about “the House being repeatedly asked to pronounce on the same fundamental proposition.”

This issue was simple: Could the prime minister push the same motion repeatedly in the hope that MPs would be beaten into submission?

Bercow said: “The 24th edition of Erskine May states on page 397 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.”

After referencing past practice dating back to 1604, Bercow broke down the Brexit timeline of events and made it clear, “what the government cannot legitimately do is to re-submit to the House the same proposition—or substantially the same proposition—as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes.”

Anger erupted in the House of Commons chamber, while disbelief set among the EU leadership as they prepare for the upcoming EU 27 summit in Brussels.

As questions were shouted at the speaker—along with insults and assumptions about his impartiality—Bercow, in his booming voice, took a defiant tone: “I have never been pushed around (by MPs), and I’m not going to start now.”

“The role of the Speaker has always been to speak truth to power,” he continued, “and that is what I shall do.”

Hours after Bercow’s decision, a spokesperson for Prime Minister May said, “We note the Speaker’s statement. This is something that requires proper consideration.”

Solicitor General Robert Buckland said the Prime Minister could ask the Queen to or cut short the current parliamentary session and start a new one—allowing a new “first” vote on the Brexit deal.

“We’re in a major constitutional crisis here, a political crisis we want to solve for the country. The Prime Minister is doing everything she can to try and break that impasse,”  Buckland said. “We are going to have to put all our thinking caps on collectively and come up with some quick answers here.”

The crisis centers on one crucial fact: March 29 is still Brexit day. As of now, the law has not been changed.

After serval cabinet meetings this afternoon, May is likely to ask EU leaders to create an “escape clause” for a short two- to three-month deal if she can make substantial changes to her stalled deal and send it to Parliament for a vote. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said it was unlikely the government would move to end the session of parliament to get around the ruling.

“I think the one thing everyone would agree on is involving Her Majesty in any of the issues around Brexit is not the way forward,” Barclay said, “so I don’t see that as a realistic option.”

What could happen now?

— The government could change the rules: In theory, MPs could vote to suspend the order preventing repeat votes on bills. It would be unusual, and whether MPs would vote to pass the motion is another question.

— Start over with a new session: The government could prorogue—the technical term for ending a session—and then call Parliament to sit again. It would be a tactic circumventing the rule on not repeating a vote in the same session before starting a brand new one. Past precedent is found in the 1949 Parliament Act.

After Monday’s surprise, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn planned to meet with leaders of the Scottish National Party, Liberal-Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party for talks on Brexit this week.

The loose coalition, minus the Labour Party, released a joint statement calling for another public vote.

“The best and most democratic way forward is to put the decision back to the people in a new vote—with the option to Remain on the ballot paper,” they said.

It is expected May will ask EU leaders at the summit for a withdrawal extension until June 30, 2019, with the possibility of a further two-year extension if needed.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.