John Bercow was accused of trying to sabotage Brexit last night after he blocked another vote on Theresa May’s deal.
In a dramatic intervention, the Commons Speaker ruled that the EU withdrawal agreement could not be put to a vote again without substantial changes.
He gave Downing Street no notice of his announcement, which came just 24 hours before the Prime Minister was expected to ask the Commons to decide on the issue for a third time following two crushing defeats.
As well as sparking a constitutional crisis, Mr Bercow’s move all but killed any prospect of a vote before Mrs May heads to an EU summit on Thursday.
Mr Bercow’s move all but killed any prospect of a vote before Mrs May heads to an EU summit on Thursday
It also means she may have to ask Brussels for a delay of up to 20 months. A senior Government source said the Speaker, who is an outspoken critic of Brexit, wanted to wreck Mrs May’s plan of limiting the delay to three months.
‘It seems clear that the Speaker’s motive here is to rule out a meaningful vote this week,’ the source added. ‘It leads you to believe what he really wants is a longer extension, where Parliament will take over the process and force a softer form of Brexit.
‘Anyone who thinks that this makes No Deal more likely is mistaken – the Speaker wouldn’t have done it if it did.’
With just ten days to go until Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, the Prime Minister was last night locked in crisis talks with her closest advisers to try to come up with a new strategy.
Ministers proposed a string of radical options – including asking the Queen to open a new session of Parliament – in the hope of getting round Mr Bercow’s ruling
In a bleak assessment, solicitor general Robert Buckland said: ‘We’re in a major constitutional crisis here, a political crisis we want to try and solve for the country.
‘The Prime Minister’s doing everything she can to try to break that impasse.
‘There are ways around this – a prorogation of Parliament and a new session. We are talking about hours to March 29.
‘We could have done without this. Now we have this ruling to deal with, it is clearly going to require a lot of very fast but very deep thought in the hours ahead.’
In a private message to Tory MPs, Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris suggested the EU would exploit the chaos to demand a five-year delay to the UK’s departure, ‘giving the Commons all the time in the world to steal Brexit’. He added: ‘Game over.’
As Mr Bercow sparked further controversy by suggesting he might allow MPs to vote on soft Brexit options:
- Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng told MPs that Mrs May would this week ask Brussels for a long delay to Brexit;
- Sources said the PM would seek a ‘break clause’ to allow Britain to leave before the European Parliament elections this summer if her deal is approved;
- Mr Bercow, who acts as judge and jury on Commons rules, suggested a ‘new political agreement’ with the EU or the promise of a referendum would be needed for him to allow another vote;
- Hopes that the DUP would swing behind the deal in the next 24 hours faded, with sources suggesting there would now be no breakthrough this week;
- Leading Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, however, hinted he could back the PM, saying: ‘Mrs May’s deal, however bad it is, takes us out of the European Union’;
- Government sources suggested a final attempt to get her plan through could still be made next week if the DUP and leading Eurosceptics come on board;
- EU sources suggested Brussels could delay a decision on extending Article 50 until March 29 – the day the UK is due to leave;
- Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom clashed angrily with Mr Bercow, accusing him of failing to treat MPs with ‘courtesy and respect’;
- Boris Johnson faced a backlash after savaging the PM’s deal again.
Mr Bercow’s decision was welcomed by some Brexiteers, who believe it could bring No Deal closer, and by supporters of a second referendum, who think it could result in Brexit being blocked altogether.
Hardline Brexiteer Owen Paterson said: ‘If the withdrawal agreement cannot be put to the Commons again, we must leave the EU on March 29, as the law demands.’
Labour MP Angela Eagle welcomed the ruling, saying it was wrong to allow MPs to be ‘either strong-armed, bullied or bribed’ by the Government into backing Mrs May’s plan. But Mr Bercow enraged some mainstream Tories.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Downing Street today
Neil O’Brien MP accused the Speaker of double standards, pointing out that he had allowed multiple votes on plans hatched by Remainers trying to block Mrs May’s strategy.
And he warned that voters would not understand why MPs were being banned from voting on a deal negotiated with 27 EU countries.
Mr O’Brien said: ‘If the Speaker were to block a solution, which many of my constituents favour, from even being discussed, on the basis of no principle other than his preferences, then my constituents will be furious with him.
‘It is for Parliament to decide what it wants to do in order to respect the will of the British people, not for one man to decide what should or shouldn’t be on the table.’
A 'Boll**** to Brexit' sticker can be clearly seen in photographs of Mr Bercow's black 4x4, which has a personalised numberplate
Pro-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament today
James Gray MP said: ‘Thanks to this announcement Brexit will not now occur. The people of Britain, the people who voted for Brexit, but also the Remainers who want to see democracy done, will be absolutely furious that their views will not be allowed to be heard in the House of Commons.’
Mr Bercow’s ruling centred on the longstanding principle that MPs should not be asked to vote twice on the same issue in a single session of Parliament.
He said he had allowed a second vote on the deal because it had changed after Mrs May secured fresh concessions from Brussels.
But he added: ‘What the Government cannot legitimately do is resubmit to the House the same proposition – or substantially the same proposition – as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes.’
Ministers pointed out that Mr Bercow had torn up Commons rules in January to allow Dominic Grieve, a Tory remainer, to throw another spanner in the Government’s Brexit plans.
Mr Bercow last night suggested he might let MPs use an emergency debate – possibly as soon as this week – to stage votes on soft Brexit options, such as staying in the customs union and single market. Votes on emergency debates are normally restricted to ‘neutral’ motions.