Britain faces major constitutional crisis

John Bercow: Despised by many Leavers who fear he is trying to block Brexit.

“Sabotage!” said friends of Theresa May last night as the Speaker of the House of Commons ambushed her plans for a third vote on the withdrawal bill. But many others hailed him as a hero.

“A hulking great spanner in the works.” Just 11 days before Brexit.

That was how the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, described the dramatic moment yesterday afternoon when John Bercow shocked and amazed politicians on all sides by declaring that Theresa May would not be allowed a third vote on her Brexit deal.

Not unless it is a different deal with significant changes.

The Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, said it was a “major constitutional crisis”. In Brussels, leaders of the EU could not decide whether to laugh or cry over what they see as an utterly chaotic British shambles.

But Bercow held firm. “I have never been pushed around and I'm not going to start now,” he said yesterday. He had based his decision on an ancient convention created in the year before the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, and which has not been used since 1920. It rules that MPs may not vote on an identical motion or bill twice in the same parliamentary session.

Theresa May and her team were incredulous and furious. They were working all weekend on winning support for the third vote before an EU summit this Thursday. Now they were “considering their position”.

All Brexit predictions were instantly turned on their heads. This morning experts are at loggerheads. Some are saying Theresa May’s deal is now dead. Some are saying Brexit will never happen. Some are expecting a general election; others a “people’s vote”. Some are saying all of the above.

Who is John Bercow? Just about the most powerful politician in Britain at the moment since he controls what happens in Parliament, and Parliament, ultimately, decides everything.

As the current holder of the ancient office of Speaker of the House of Commons, he decides who speaks in debates and can punish MPs who break the rules.

He gets to utter the most famous phrase in politics hundreds of times a week. “Ordaaah! Ordaaah!”

In Britain he is less known than most leading politicians. But yesterday The Times wrote that he “has won a legion of fans abroad, becoming Europe’s surprising new pin-up”.

“[His] barking sounds like a mixture of a nurse in the kindergarten and a sergeant on the parade ground,” said one German correspondent.

Hero or villain?

John Bercow is absolutely right to black a third vote says Ross Clark of The Spectator. Theresa May must be stopped from descending “to one of the very worst practices of the EU” — keeping on holding votes until she gets her desired answer.

No. He is wrong says John Rentoul of The Independent. The most important role of the Speaker is to help MPs make a decision. By stopping the vote he has made it “harder for them to do that”. That is a betrayal of his position.

You Decide

  1. Is Parliament childish?
  2. Is it wrong to base modern judgements on 400-year-old traditions?

Activities

  1. Research the history of the role of Speaker using the Expert Links. Create a timeline showing five major landmarks in its development.
  2. Imagine you were inventing a new country. How would you decide on new laws? Write down your plan in under 300 words.

Some People Say...

“For far too long the House of Commons has been run as little more than a private club by and for gentleman amateurs.”

John Bercow

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that governments are not meant to be able to keep asking Parliament the same question in the hope of boring MPs into submission if they keep saying no.
What do we not know?
Whether John Bercow is ”breaking the constitution” with his decision. The main reason is that unlike most modern states, Britain does not have a codified constitution but an unwritten one formed of Acts of Parliament, court judgments and conventions.

Word Watch

Third vote
Theresa May’s EU withdrawal bill has already been heavily defeated twice in the House of Commons. She was aiming to bring it back this week for a third vote.
Solicitor General
He is the number two to the British Attorney General, who is, in turn, the chief legal adviser to the government.
Gunpowder Plot
A failed attempt to blow up England’s King James I (1566-1625) and the Parliament on November 5, 1605. The plot was organised by Robert Catesby in an effort to end the persecution of Roman Catholics by the English government.
Speaker
The chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons. They must remain politically impartial at all times. The holder of this office is an MP who has been elected to be Speaker by other Members of Parliament. During debates they keep order and call on MPs to speak.