It has been clear for some time now that John Bercow (Speaker of the UK House of Commons) sees himself as a leading protagonist in our political drama, not some bystander. Even before Theresa May’s deal was bogged down in parliamentary trench warfare, the Commons Speaker had styled himself as a warrior on behalf of the legislature, defending it against arrogant incursions by government. But kicking May’s withdrawal agreement out of the chamber altogether is a ferocious escalation.
The premise is procedural and venerable. Erskine May, the vast tome in which are accumulated the various rules and conventions governing parliamentary business, decrees that the same motion cannot be debated twice in one parliamentary session. And since May’s Brexit deal was rejected last week, Bercow believes that the prime minister cannot simply come back tomorrow — as had been planned — and ask MPs to reconsider. What was billed as a third “meaningful vote” would need some substantial revision of content to qualify as truly meaningful in the Speaker’s eyes.
Views on whether or not Bercow (who serves as the Member of Parliament for Buckingham) has gone rogue will tend to follow previously held opinions on a man about whom few MPs have neutral feelings. He has been mired in a running vendetta with the right-wing of the Tory party. They failed in a coup attempt to unseat him in 2015. He has styled himself as a moderniser, but conspicuously failed to rise to the challenge of a parliamentary bullying scandal, in which he was personally implicated.
The animosity of Conservative hardliners earns him the indulgence of many Labour MPs. Likewise, Brexiteers’ conviction that he is an unabashed partisan for the pro-European cause is sufficient to win him the backing of Commons remainers. But even his political allies recognise that he is vain, pompous and inclined to deploy the discretion that his office allows with partisan relish. No doubt the Speaker himself would insist that there is no bias, just a proper zeal in favour of parliamentary sovereignty and constitutional rectitude.
But Bercow also knows that history is being made on his watch and that he is not the type to sit back and watch it being made. He had a choice as to how his role in the whole Brexit drama would be recorded. He could have been discreet, subtle, unassuming — the defuser of rows and the lubricator of compromise. Or he could get stuck in to the fight. He could be remembered by historians in a series of easily skipped footnotes or he could end up having a chapter to himself. It is clear from Monday’s action which option he prefers.
Well within his rights
Bercow (a former right-winger, who changed his views after becoming an MP and at one time was rumoured to be likely to defect to the Labour Party) knows his Speakership will not survive much beyond Brexit anyway.
His enemies will come for him again and he doesn’t have all that many friends. That doesn’t mean his decision is capricious or unconstitutional. The relevant procedural scriptures seem pretty clear on the matter, so the Speaker is well within his rights to interpret them as he has done. But it is still a matter of interpretation and so unavoidably a heavily political action. It blasts the prime minister’s plans for the week off course. It transforms the calculations that MPs make about what should happen next.
It also retrospectively casts a darker, more terminal shadow over the decision a majority of them made to reject the deal last Tuesday. Might some Tories or members of the DUP have acted differently had they known it was May’s last shot at getting her deal through?
Certainly the prime minister’s strategy has depended on eliminating options, so that eventually MPs would conclude that the only feasible Brexit on the table was hers. For that to work, she needed to keep bluffing and keep raising the stakes. She didn’t realise that ultimately, in parliament, it’s the Speaker who runs the game. And now all bets are off.
Rafael Behr is a noted political columnist.