Bercow's shock

19 March 2019

Last Thursday, Stephen Barclay summed up for the Government in the debate on delaying Brexit after May lost the second meaningful vote. He touched upon Chris Bryant’s Amendment J, which was intended to reinforce the Parliamentary rule that a question may not be brought back to the Commons in the same session. Barclay argued that the amendment was unnecessary: the Government could engineer a different question and in any event, ultimately it was a matter for the Speaker. Bryant withdrew his amendment and now we know why. Bercow has made his thunderous ruling, among other things eliminating the Government’s scope to act as Barclay suggested.

Bercow is doing what May seems unable to do: communicating to Brussels that its offer is utterly unacceptable to the Commons. As for May, she has pushed parliamentary conventions to their limit. Bercow is said to be a Remainer, but his assumption of John Bull's ruddy countenance is a credit to his below-the-salt background - to chippy North Londoners wherever they may be found. It may even deliver the paradox of what is taken to be his least-sought outcome - a clean break in ten days’ time.

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Response to Bercow’s bombshell has reflected the shock it has caused. Rees-Mogg, the Solicitor-General and others have spoken about proroguing Parliament so that the question might be put to another session before 29 March. This seems far-fetched. There is precious little time and Palace officials are likely to tender advice, such that the Queen would press May closely as to the constitutional propriety of taking this course. Instead, the Prime Minister would be gently but firmly reminded that the time-hallowed response to the loss of a flagship policy is to resign: Macdonald, Eden, Cameron.

Others have spoken about inviting the Commons to suspend those provisions of Erskine May which are stymying a rerun. I cannot imagine that the Commons would vote in this way, as it would be to undermine its prerogatives. It would also pave the way for a further vote on an unloved proposal by a Prime Minister whose lack of grip on the Commons was made clear in last week’s votes. She lost Tuesday’s meaningful vote by 391 to 242, with 75 of her own MPs voting against her. She won Thursday’s vote for an extension only with the support of opposition MPs: her own party rejected it by 190 votes to 114.

If no new meaningful vote is taken, however, May’s mandate for an extension is untrammelled by the periods contemplated by the clauses describing the options arising. If the vote were to have been won, clause (2) contemplated an extension to 30 June. If lost, the period is unspecified, but clause (3) notes the advent of the elections for MEPs. The unqualified clause (1)  reads

…that the Government will seek to agree with the European Union an extension of the period specified in Article 50(3);

As this fails to specify a period, it gives her desolate ministry ample scope for further mischief.

May seems determined to prevent leaving on 29 March with no deal. She is also placing the EU27 on the horns of a dilemma as they do not wish for a no-deal outcome on 29 March, but will be reluctant to agree to a short extension without a clear indication of its purpose. Earlier today, Michel Barnier said that his tests will be

-         Does an extension increase the chances of ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement?

-         Will the extension offer more time to rework the Political Declaration?

-         How can the EU ensure it is not in the same position at the end of the extension?

These are tough questions for May to answer. Even so, she is shortly off to Brussels, cap in hand, with a delay looking increasingly on the cards.

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It is impossible to tell how this will go down with the country. So a word of caution to my Leaver readers. However seductive, Brexiteers court disrepute if they become parties to "stab in the back" stories - the poisonous dolchstoβlegende of post-WW1 Germany. Politics is a rough old game and no-one should complain that Remainers didn't roll over and die - "take their shots" as we used to say in the playground.

Two years ago, my tub-thumping  "Trillion Euro claim" was a metaphor for a more robust approach to negotiation, with a view to forcing the EU27 onto the back foot. Five years ago, in the ASI’s entry for the IEA’s Brexit competition, I argued for similarly robust recruitment, management and internal discipline as to our own "machinery of government". Instead we had business as usual. This is not to claim prescience, just noting a counter-factual.

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I cannot tell what lies in May's heart. Nick Timothy is not alone in believing that she was never really committed to this Brexit malarkey. Regardless, she lost her majority. The EU27 have revelled in their unity and May's weakness to make ludicrous demands. Astonishingly, a big slug of my countrymen is willing to accept them - or worse. If I repudiate dolchstoβ, I find it easier to entertain a trahison des clercs. Perhaps they’re not so different.

I do not know what is going to happen. But I do know this. May ought to have resigned after the first "meaningful vote". Instead she has taken her cues from one of Hollywood's most vulgar conceptions of moral excellence - persistence to the exclusion of judgement. Regardless of his reasons, Bercow has called a halt to much of that. But she is still messing up the country and heaven knows, it is now far more than well past time for her to go.