Relations between the Speaker and the government have taken yet another turn for the worse this afternoon. Ahead of tonight’s vote on Theresa May’s doomed Brexit deal, ministers had hoped that an amendment tabled by Andrew Murrison – calling for an end date on the backstop – could win backbench support and save the Prime Minister from humiliation this evening. However, John Bercow had other ideas – and did not select the amendment for the vote.
Instead, Bercow selected four amendments from Labour, SNP, Edward Leigh and John Barron. This means three seemingly government friendly amendments – from Murrison, Hugo Swire and a group of Labour MPs – have been left off. Along with colleagues, Labour MP Lisa Nandy had put forward an amendment on workers’ rights – No.10 were expected to accept it as a way of winning Labour support. With the four amendments selected, the vote tonight looks like a straight vote on the deal – with little hope of anything being added on to make it more appetising to MPs.
The fact that Bercow chose to announce the amendments he had selected from the Speaker’s chair rather than in private has raised eyebrows in some quarters. It suggests that the Speaker is enjoying the power he currently wields on Brexit proceedings – and how that winds up the Conservative side. There will be disappointment in government that the Murrison amendment did not pass as it means the chances of a historic defeat have increased. That amendment – along with Swire and Nandy – was seen as a way of (a) getting the numbers down (b) showing Brussels there is a route to a deal passing if they are willing to negotiate. Will ministers be surprised? It’s unlikely. After Bercow ignored precedent last week to allow a Remain-friendly Dominic Grieve amendment which he was advised to reject by clerks, few Tories believe that Bercow is impartial. Today’s decision will only add to that view.