The Speaker’s ruling that the government cannot bring back Theresa May’s deal to the House of Commons for a third time, unless there are “substantial changes”, has triggered outcries that he is biased and trying to frustrate Brexit.
I don’t know what is in the Speaker’s mind or what his motivations are, so it is best to look at the ruling on its merits. The rule he cites is Parliament’s equivalent of the “double jeopardy” rule in the courts. It stops the same question – or substantially the same question – being brought to votes repeatedly during the same session of Parliament.
Theresa May’s first motion to approve her deal was overwhelmingly defeated on 15 January. After another vote on the ‘Brady’ amendment, she promised to get “legally binding changes” to the backstop.
The Attorney General tried to negotiate some extremely limited changes, but failed. She then sent her civil service negotiator to Brussels instead, who came back waving three complicated pieces of legal paper.
The Speaker’s ruling explained that the next attempt to get the deal through was in order, since the three pieces of paper arguably made the deal substantially different from before. So the House after debate should decide how much difference they would make: which was “not a lot”, and the deal was again defeated, this time by 149 votes.
For a short time the deal looked dead, until the zombie rose again. The PM would bring the same deal back for a vote again – and again, and again, and again.
This kind of conduct – acting like a battering ram to make the House vote endlessly on the same question until it gives the ‘right’ answer – is exactly what the rule is intended to prevent. So it seems that the Speaker has applied the rule in line with its purpose and spirit.
Whether he has applied it equally to other business such as the Cooper-Boles amendment seems more questionable.
Unless something amazing happens, the deal cannot be voted on again before Thursday’s European Council meeting. Theresa May will go there and plead for an Article 50 extension, for some rather nebulous purpose.
The EU might refuse an extension. Then unless the deal is approved in another last-gasp vote next week, the UK will automatically leave the EU on Friday next week with no deal. The House’s resolution last week to “take no deal off the table” has no effect in law and will not stop that happening.
Or the PM and EU leaders could stage a choreographed charade. An offer of a long Article 50 extension (requiring European Parliament elections to be held in May) will be deployed as a threat – in a renewed attempt to make Brexit supporters vote for the deal in the final week before we leave.
Last week, more than half the Conservative party in Parliament voted against the principle of an Article 50 extension. So if the PM comes back with that, she will need to get it through the House on Labour votes. That would be a terrible betrayal of the personal promises made by Theresa May to deliver the referendum result.
It is clear that she is obsessed with her deal and blind to its fundamental defects. So it is possible that she will have a last throw of the dice next week by tabling another vote on it. Will the Speaker rule that there had been enough of a substantial change to allow it?
I don’t know. He may not. But what I do know is that her deal does not deliver Brexit, except in name. It will guarantee that the ongoing turmoil of negotiations will extend over the next 21 months or longer, during which we will be subject to EU laws without a vote. The legally binding backstop will fatally undermine the UK’s negotiating position.
Under an Article 50 extension, we would have effectively the same transition period but at least we would keep our vote. More importantly, we would not be tied in to the backstop or other parts of the deal such as future money payments, so our negotiating position would be much stronger.
So, terrible as an Article 50 extension is for believers in Brexit, it is much much better than Theresa May’s deal. If it comes back again even in those dire circumstances, there is no real choice – it must be voted down again and finally killed.
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