Was Speaker Bercow Right To Bend The Rules?

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, made headlines last week when he allowed a backbench MP to table an amendment to the Government’s business motion setting out the terms for the rest of the debate on the Brexit deal.

As readers may recall, MPs were supposed to debate the Brexit deal in December. That debate was governed by a business motion that MPs approved on December 4. Under the terms of the original motion, the so-called ‘meaningful vote’ was supposed to take place on December 11, but when it looked like the Government would lose the vote, ministers paused the debate and promised to seek further concessions/clarifications from Brussels. When the Government ultimately rescheduled the meaningful vote, they had to amend the House’s original Order of December 4 in order to implement the new timetable.

However, Tory MP Dominic Grieve tabled an amendment to the Government’s business motion stating that, if the House refuses to approve the Brexit agreements, ministers must table a motion “considering the process of exiting the European Union under Article 50” within three sitting days. Under section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government could have taken up to twenty-one days to table this motion, but with Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, this wouldn’t have left MPs much time to approve an alternative to the Government’s Brexit deal.

The tricky part is that paragraph 9 of the Order of December 4 stated that “[n]o motion to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown; and the question on any such motion shall be put forthwith.” In the Government’s view, this meant that Grieve’s amendment was out of order. But Speaker Bercow allowed it on the grounds that it was an amendment rather than a motion, and the requirement to put the question forthwith merely prohibited debate rather than amendment. This led to some very testy exchanges with Tory MPs.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this outcome. Bercow certainly seems guilty of sophistry here, but one could argue that his approach was justified given the extraordinary circumstances.[1] As Bercow rightly pointed out, parliamentary procedure is not set in stone; it can (and must) change from time to time. But his answers to the various points of order raised by Tory MPs suggest that he hadn’t considered the wider implications of his ruling. Given that Bercow has publicly outed himself as a Remainer, it’s not hard to see why some MPs have questioned his motives.[2] And reports that Dominic Grieve had a secret meeting with Bercow before tabling his amendment will only fuel suspicions of a backroom stitch-up.  

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Is this just an arcane footnote in the larger Brexit story, or does it herald a larger shift in the balance of power between the Crown and the Commons?


[1] It appears that Bercow acted against the advice of the Commons’ clerks, though their exact advice has not been publicly released.

[2] To be fair to Bercow, his willingness to bend the rules has benefitted Brexiteers, too. In May 2013, he allowed a Euroskeptic MP to table an amendment to the Address in Reply to the Queen’s Speech. That amendment, which was not ultimately carried, arguably pressured David Cameron into offering a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU.  

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1 Response to Was Speaker Bercow Right To Bend The Rules?

  1. Pingback: Bercow Nixes Third Vote On May’s Brexit Deal | A Venerable Puzzle

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