Not for the first time the Speaker of the House of Commons appears to hold the Brexit process in his hands. There has been speculation this week that John Bercow has the power to prevent a third vote on Theresa May’s deal by resorting to a parliamentary convention which prevents a motion being debated in the Commons if it is substantially unchanged from a motion already brought before the House during the same session of parliament. Given that a third vote on May’s deal – likely to be called on Tuesday – would be essentially the same motion as was defeated by 149 votes last Tuesday (and not all that much different from the one defeated by 230 votes in January) there would appear to be a good case for Bercow to act.
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 I do wish that on this occasion he exercise the full powers vested in him and pull Tuesday’s vote. 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 you get the right answer – just as 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 doesn’t get through at the third time of asking, on Tuesday, there is already talk of a fourth vote. And if the EU grants her an extension, no doubt we will have fifth and sixth votes, each of them held after May has dangled a few more electoral bribes before MPs. Next week, DUP MPs will march through the lobbies, likely sent on their way with 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 the deal regardless). At this rate, May’s deal will eventually go through – but only after public spending has been doubled and the entire European Research Group has 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 would cause outrage by pulling Tuesday’s vote, but he would be right to do so.