What has John Bercow done now?

Everything you need to know about decision by Commons Speaker to stop MPs voting for third time on PM’s deal

What did John Bercow rule out on Monday?

He has told the government that it cannot send Theresa May’s Brexit deal back for a third vote in parliament immediately unless substantial changes are made to it.

What is Bercow’s reasoning for his ruling?

He has based his decision on Erskine May, the official parliamentary rulebook. This work was begun by Thomas Erskine May, a constitutional expert who in 1844 published a work on the proceedings of parliament. He later became clerk of the Commons and regularly updated the work, as did others in later years. It is now into its 24th edition. Page 397 of the document states that a motion or amendment “which is the same, in substance” as something already voted on should not be brought forward again in a session of parliament.

Is this all Bercow’s idea?

No. The Speaker said he was responding to questions on the issue from MPs, among them Labour’s Chris Bryant, who last week tabled an amendment to the second meaningful vote on May’s deal making such a point. It was withdrawn without a vote, but the point was made.

Is there precedent for such a decision?

The Speaker said the general principle, as outlined by Erskine May, dates back to 1604. In his speech last Tuesday about his amendment, Bryant gave a series of examples where Speakers had refused MPs permission to raise issues which had already been decided that session, including about extra funding to nursery schools in 1864, limiting rail workers’ hours in 1891, and on women’s suffrage in 1912.

Does Bercow have authority to do this?

Yes – according to parliamentary rules, as Speaker he is the “highest authority of the House of Commons” and has final say over how the business is conducted, as well as other key choices, for example which tabled amendments are selected for votes.

Could the government just change the rules?

In theory, yes. Amid a series of points of order by MPs to Bercow after his announcement, Conservative Alex Burghart asked if the Commons could simply suspend the standing orders which prevent repeat votes. This was, the Speaker replied, up to the house. Whether or not MPs would vote to pass such a measure is another matter.

Is there another way round the ruling?

Yes – and this is one raised as a possibility by the solicitor general, Robert Buckland. It would be the idea of circumventing the rules on not repeating a vote in the same session of parliament by simply calling a new session of parliament. This would mean the government would prorogue parliament – the technical term for ending its session – and then call it to sit again.

There is a part-precedent for this in the passage of the 1949 Parliament Act, which reduced the powers of the House of Lords to delay certain legislation. The law was blocked by the Lords twice, over two parliamentary sessions.

Since the existing law which the new act was replacing – the 1911 Parliament Act – required three parliamentary sessions to pass before the Commons could overturn the Lords, the Attlee government prorogued parliament – ending the session – and began a new special session lasting from 14 to 26 September 1948, complete with its own King’s speech.

Asked by MPs if this could happen, Bercow said it would be “an unusual step” but confirmed it was possible.

Where can I read the relevant rules on the internet?

You can’t – at least not yet. Currently Erskine May, all 1,097 pages of it, will cost you £439.99 for a hard copy from the parliament bookshop. However, change is afoot. it is already digitised and available on the parliamentary intranet. In December the leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, said it would soon be available to all for free. This is expected to happen with the forthcoming 25th edition.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Theresa May ‘surprised’ John Bercow allowed Brexit amendment
British PM calls on Commons Speaker to ‘explain decision’ as she emphasises ‘set of rules’

Dan Sabbagh

10, Jan, 2019 @8:04 PM

Article image
Ziggy Bercow and the MPs from Mars rock old hit Erskine May | John Crace
The Speaker gets turned up to 11 for a Brexit deep cut from the Commons’ back catalogue

John Crace

18, Mar, 2019 @8:20 PM

Article image
MPs should not feel obliged to back Brexit, says John Bercow
Commons Speaker says it is ‘opinion, rather than a constitutional fact’ that MPs must vote through Brexit because of referendum result

Jessica Elgot Political reporter

12, Oct, 2017 @9:02 AM

Article image
Bercow staying on as Speaker 'may not be enough to stop no-deal'
Nick Boles warns of complacency over chances of parliament stopping hard Brexit

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

29, May, 2019 @6:15 PM

Article image
John Bercow defies Eurosceptics with vow to stay on as Speaker
Exclusive: move likely to anger hardliners who fear Bercow wants to stop no-deal Brexit

Julian Borger in Washington and Rowena Mason

28, May, 2019 @7:18 PM

Article image
John Bercow: I’ll stop Boris Johnson breaking the law on Brexit
Commons Speaker issues direct challenge to ministers threatening to ignore legislation

Rowena Mason and Owen Bowcott

12, Sep, 2019 @10:34 PM

Article image
Government won't stand in the way of attempt to remove John Bercow
Commons leader says No 10 will abide by convention of leaving question of who is Speaker to parliament

Heather Stewart Political editor

12, Feb, 2017 @8:22 PM

Article image
John Bercow: Speaker unafraid to hold the government's feet to the fire
Capable of infuriating MPs, even in his referee role as Commons Speaker, Bercow is also seen by many as the backbenchers’ ally

Jessica Elgot

09, Jan, 2019 @7:53 PM

Article image
Race is on to replace John Bercow as Commons Speaker
Deputy speakers, Labour veterans and Tory MPs among the expected candidates Brexit latest - live

Rajeev Syal and Rowena Mason

09, Sep, 2019 @3:03 PM

Article image
‘Kangaroo court’ has found me guilty of bullying, says John Bercow
Former Speaker denounces parliamentary inquiry and says he has appealed against its findings

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

16, Jan, 2022 @10:53 AM