Written by Stephen Castle
After two crushing defeats in Parliament for her plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May nonetheless had high hopes of cajoling or threatening enough recalcitrant lawmakers to win approval in a third try this week.
On Monday, though, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, stood in her way — again.
His weapon? An 1844 guide to parliamentary procedure that relies on rules dating back to 1604.
Bercow told the government that Parliament could not vote a third time on its plan for Brexit, as the departure from the European Union is known, unless the plan substantially differed from the one rejected last week.
As the speaker, Bercow, who is officially nonpartisan, determines whether or not critical votes are taken in Parliament. And he has angered the government by using this power, it says, to try to influence the Brexit process.
After the speaker announced his decision, Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, said Britain was in “a major constitutional crisis.” He speculated that the government could have the Queen “prorogue” Parliament — which means ending the current session and starting a new one, allowing a vote on the old plan.
For now, the speaker’s unexpected decision makes it unlikely that another vote can be held before May meets EU leaders at a summit Thursday in Brussels.
She had been expected to use the occasion to request a delay to Brexit, one that she argued could be a matter of months if lawmakers had by then voted for her deal, or as long as two years if they had not.
Whatever Parliament does or does not do, a delay of some duration is almost certain at this point.
Bercow’s ruling is just the latest jolt to Britain on its rocky path out of the European Union, a journey that remains as unpredictable as ever, 11 days before the scheduled departure date of March 29.
May’s failure to secure another vote on her plan increases the prospects of lawmakers getting the chance to vote on alternatives, most of them involving closer ties to the bloc.
But the government has not given up yet on its deal, which would, if passed, eventually give Britain power over immigration from Europe, but keep the country in the bloc’s customs and trade system until at least the end of next year.
Bercow, who is famous for his braying cries of “order, order,” is almost as divisive a figure in the political world as Brexit itself.
The government sees him as a partisan figure opposed to Brexit, but to supporters he is a muscular advocate of the rights of an ancient Parliament, whose rule book he invoked Monday to deny May her vote.
Offering a history lesson on parliamentary protocol, Bercow said that according to the rules, once Parliament has voted on an issue, it can’t be brought back in the same session.
He said these rules had been confirmed many times — including in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912 — and quoted from the authoritative guide to parliamentary procedure, called Erskine May, which is named for its author.
“Indeed, Erskine May makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920,” he said in Parliament.
Bercow’s view is that the second vote was different because May had negotiated changes to her plan with the European Union.
Later, Bercow added, in answer to a question, that to be considered for a vote, any proposition would have to be different not just in wording but in substance.
That appeared to rule out many of the easier fixes the government might have considered to get its deal back onto the parliamentary agenda.
May had widely been expected to hold a third “meaningful vote” on her Brexit plan on Tuesday or Wednesday, after defeats by margins of 230 votes in January, and 149 last week.
Since then, May has worked hard to win over the resistance, particularly the 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Normally, they prop up the government, but they have so far rejected its Brexit deal over qualms about the so-called backstop plan to avoid a physical border with Ireland.
If the Democratic Unionists come on board, many hard-line, pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers are expected to follow suit.
May is hoping that the prospect of a long delay to Brexit, and the risk of a watered down, “soft” Brexit or no Brexit at all, will concentrate the minds of right-wingers and bring them into her fold.
May has threatened that a long delay to Brexit is also likely to force Britain to take part in the European elections in May, a particular embarrassment to politicians who insist that Britain is about to leave the bloc. But that threat has now been undercut.
Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe expert who is managing director of the Eurasia Group, said May’s meeting with the European Union has become “much more challenging” now.
He said a possible vote this week, even if it had been unsuccessful, might have reduced the margin of the defeat enough to prod the bloc into more concessions and give her hope of returning to Parliament and finally winning on another vote next week.
“She has a much more difficult case to make now, and there is going to be much more skepticism” from the bloc in helping her out, Rahman said. “Do they want to be enabling her strategy if it is deadlocked and it looks like she is reaching the end of the road?”
The setback comes after May had been making some headway. Talks were underway with the DUP, and with Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads the hard-line pro-Brexit faction in the Conservative Party. He said he would wait to see how the Northern Irish party intended to vote before he decided what to do.
His softer tone had encouraged Downing Street that it was, at the very least, on track to get within touching distance of a victory. But perhaps some two dozen Brexit hard-liners were still preparing to vote against May’s deal.
They believe that, despite a vote in Parliament last week to the contrary, Britain might still leave the bloc without any agreement. So several Brexit enthusiasts welcomed Bercow’s ruling Monday.