I don’t know how religiously John Bercow reads Coffee House, but I am pleased that he has taken the advice I gave here on Saturday to use his powers to block a third ‘meaningful vote’ on Theresa May’s deal. This afternoon, the Speaker has made a statement to MPs that he intends to use his powers to do just this – on the grounds of a long-standing convention that a motion cannot be brought before the Commons if it is substantially the same as a motion that has already been defeated during the current session of Parliament. In one fell swoop Bercow has undermined what had seemed to be Theresa May’s last, desperate throw of the dice – a third vote on her deal.
I am no fan of John Bercow, whom I wish, in a reversal of convention, had been dragged away from the Speaker’s chair before he had even reached it. But he is right to enforce this convention. In trying repeatedly to get her bill through the Commons, the Prime Minister has descended to one of the very worst practices of the EU: keeping on holding votes until they get the right answer – just as happened when the electorates of Denmark and Ireland rejected EU treaties.
May has consistently opposed the case for a second referendum, on the grounds that the decision to leave the EU has already been made and that therefore it would be an affront to democracy to make people vote again. In January, for example, she said: ‘There has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.’
Yet she doesn’t seem to apply the same logic to Commons’ votes. If her deal was defeated at the third time of asking, there was already talk of a fourth vote. And if the EU grants her an extension, no doubt she would be planning fifth and sixth votes, each of them held after she had dangled a few more electoral bribes before MPs. DUP MPs have apparently been dangled promises of another £1 billion worth of public spending in Northern Ireland. No doubt there will be more honours, too, like the knighthood awarded to John Hayes (who thanked the Prime Minister by voting against he deal regardless). At this rate, May’s deal would eventually go through – but only once Belfast City Hall was glistening with gold leaf and the entire European Research Group had been elevated to the nobility.
If a second referendum would damage faith our democracy, May’s attempt to hold repeat votes until she gets the correct answer is doing it even more harm. At least a second referendum would be asking a different question: what sort of withdrawal deal do you want? May is asking MPs exactly the same question over and over again. Bercow’s statement is already generating outrage, but we can thank him for thwarting the Prime Minister’s futile Brexit endgame. Her deal is dead, and thankfully it has now been buried, too.