Mr Speaker takes control Brexit reports
Another damaging defeat for May as Bercow hands power over Brexit process to the Commons
JOHN BERCOW seized control of the Brexit process from Theresa May and handed it to MPS as the Prime Minister suffered her second humiliating Commons defeat in as many days.
The Speaker ignored legal advice and parliamentary precedent to allow a vote that gives Mrs May just three days to present a Plan B for Brexit if she loses the “meaningful vote” next Tuesday.
MPS voted 308-297 for an amendment tabled by Dominic Grieve and backed by 16 Conservatives including former ministers Sir Oliver Letwin, Justine Greening and Kenneth Clarke.
More concerning for Mrs May, the result means if she presents a Plan B any vote will be amendable. Tory rebels and Labour could effectively take Brexit out of her hands by holding a series of votes, with the Speaker’s help, to dictate what she should do next.
Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, gave a flavour of what Labour might try to force on the Prime Minister yesterday when he said it “may well be inevitable” that Article 50 would have to be extended.
Mr Bercow’s decision to allow yesterday’s vote, which ministers had thought impossible, caused uproar and accusations that he was trying to halt Brexit.
Last night Tories were plotting revenge with a plan to table motions proposing that Mr Bercow’s pay be docked or his gilt-edged pension removed.
Mrs May sought to fight back by promising MPS a vote on whether the Government would enter the Irish backstop or extend the Brexit transition period if they backed her deal. But the move was dismissed by politicians on both sides as it contradicted the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which will be binding in international law if passed by Parliament.
Mrs May made a desperate move to win back the support of the DUP by promising the Northern Ireland Assembly a veto over elements of the Brexit plan. The DUP said the offer was purely cosmetic, partly because the Assembly had been suspended for two years. Less than 24 hours after Tory rebels inflicted a defeat on Mrs May that will restrict her powers in the event of no deal, she was beaten once again via an amendment to a Commons motion that ministers had thought “bomb proof ”.
Mr Grieve, the former attorney general, submitted the amendment to a motion introducing a five-day debate on the deal on Tuesday, though he believed he stood little chance of success.
Mr Bercow was told by his staff that the amendment could not be tabled, and was given legal advice by Sir David Natzler, the Clerk of the Commons, to the same effect. But he went against their advice and allowed MPS to vote on Mr Grieve’s motion, insisting he had the power to ignore precedent as “precedent can be broken”. It prompted Tory Brexiteers to demand Mr Bercow publish notes of the legal advice he received and some MPS to demand he resign.
Andrea Leadsom MP said Mr Bercow’s actions set a “damaging precedent”, telling ITV’S Peston show that the Speaker had to “show the greatest level of impartiality”. She said: “What happened today is instead of being the guardian of the rules, he decided uni- laterally to change them.”
Tory MPS were trying to gather signatures for a motion that would cut Mr Bercow’s £152,896 pay by 10 per cent or strip him of his pension, which adds half of his Speaker’s top-up salary to his MP’S pension. The extra payment is worth £38,442 per year.
Downing Street last night confirmed it had accepted an amendment that would give MPS the right to vote on whether to enter the backstop arrangement, extend the transition period or limit the backstop to 12 months. Officials in Brussels pointed out that if Parliament agreed the Brexit deal, it could not be overridden or amended, meaning Mrs May’s offer to MPS would have no legal basis. Today Mrs May hosts Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, who has said he wants to avoid no deal.
THE seeds of the extraordinary constitutional crisis triggered by John Bercow were sown on Tuesday afternoon, when the Speaker found himself locked in a row with Commons officials.
The tabling office, the group of officials that decides which amendments end up on the order paper, harboured significant concerns about one by Dominic Grieve, a pro-european Tory MP and former attorney general.
The officials argued that the amendment, which stated that Theresa May must return to the Commons for another vote within three days if her Brexit deal was voted down, and handed more power to Parliament, was in breach of the rules.
The government business motion he was trying to amend, they said, was unamendable. Mr Bercow, however, disagreed with his officials, and took the extraordinary step of using a device known as a “Speaker’s instruction” to force it on to the order paper.
The Government, unaware of Mr Bercow’s role in getting the amendment on the order paper in the first place, initially assumed there was no way he could select it.
Sir David Natzler, the clerk of the Commons, advised Mr Bercow yesterday morning that the Grieve amendment “should not be touched” because it went against the “standing orders of the House”. Mr Bercow was told twice by the clerks that the amendment should not be accepted. However, a source said he was “livid” and refused to accept their advice, referring to them as a “gaggle”.
Mr Bercow went ahead and selected the amendment before heading directly for the chamber. Shortly before Prime Minister’s Questions, Julian Smith, the Chief Whip, approached Mr Bercow in the Speaker’s chair to challenge his decision.
Allowing the amendment to be tabled, he argued, would damage Parliament. He was dismissed by Mr Bercow, who was overheard saying that he wouldn’t be “bullied” by Conservative whips. A government source said: “This just goes to show the extent to which the Speaker will do all he can to prevent the referendum result being implemented. He will end up damaging democracy.”
As Prime Minister’s Questions came to an end, MPS remained for the points of order, which offered them a chance to challenge Mr Bercow directly. It lasted for an hour and eight minutes, with interventions from 38 MPS.
Mr Bercow insisted he was well within his remit, suggesting that MPS had no right to question his decision.
“It is the long-established practice of this house that the Speaker in the chair makes judgments on the selection of amendments, and those judgments are not questioned by members of the House,” he said. “I am clear in my mind that I have taken the right course.” Mark Francois, a vice-chairman of the European Research Group of Tory Eurosceptic MPS, accused Mr Bercow of “sophistry”. “I have not been in this House as long as you, but I have been here for 18 years and I have never known any occasion when any Speaker has overruled a motion of the House of Commons,” he said.
Mr Bercow responded with a technicality. “We’re not speaking here of a motion but of an amendment to a motion. I’m sorry but there is a distinction between a motion and an amendment.”
Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the Commons, homed in on the advice Mr Bercow had been given by Sir David, asking him to publish it.
Mr Bercow confirmed he consulted the clerk and officials, saying the advice was given to him “privately and that’s absolutely proper”. On the other side of the debate, Ken Clarke, the former Cabinet minister and a pro-european Tory MP, said it was “unbelievable” that MPS were attempting to stop the Commons from expressing its views on the matter.
He said: “I would suggest to some of my honourable friends – the ones that are getting somewhat overexcited – that perhaps they should don a yellow jacket and go outside.”
At this point, Tory Eurosceptics turned on Mr Bercow himself, accusing him of failing to act with impartiality. Mr Bercow replied: “The fact is there is a responsibility upon the chair to do its best to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons including the views of dissenters on the Government benches ... and to defend the rights of opposition and very small parties as well.”
Adam Holloway, a Tory MP, accused
‘I would suggest to some of my honourable friends that perhaps they should don a yellow jacket and go outside’
‘We’re not speaking here of a motion, but of an amendment to a motion. Sorry, there is a distinction’
Mr Bercow of having a “derogatory” sticker about Brexit in his car which states “B------- to Brexit”.
Mr Bercow said: “That sticker on the subject of Brexit happens to be affixed to or in the windscreen of my wife’s car, and I’m sure he wouldn’t suggest for one moment that a wife is somehow the property or chattel of her husband. She is entitled to her views, that sticker is not mine and that’s the end of it.”
Baroness Boothroyd, the former Commons Speaker, said: “He should have been very honest with the House and said ‘I have created a precedent’.”
The Speaker in full flow as he was questioned by MPS on his decision to allow yesterday’s amendment
John Bercow is challenged by MPS in a session lasting more than an hour. The conflict came after he chose to set aside advice by Sir David Natzler, the clerk of the Commons, front left, wearing glasses