19 March 2019

Bercow, Brexit and the battle for sovereignty

By

John Bercow is an acquired taste that, despite years of trying, many people have failed to acquire. Even his admirers allow that their estimation of his character and conduct is trifling when set beside the Speaker’s own. He gives every impression of enjoying himself a little bit more than is entirely seemly; the parliamentary equivalent of a cricket umpire convinced the people have come to see him umpire rather than watch W.G. Grace bat.

But even the great doctor could be forced to play within the laws of the game from time to time and so it is with Mr Bercow and this government. The Speaker’s “bombshell” declaration that the Government cannot simply keep putting the withdrawal agreement before the House of Commons until such time as the Commons is prepared to swallow is, in this instance, at least backed by precedent. Indeed that precedent stretches all the way back to 1604. How, mateys, do you like that parliamentary sovereignty now?

And it is a precedent that has been reaffirmed on several occasions since then. It has not been challenged in almost a century. The government cannot treat Parliament as though it is made up of recalcitrant children who, having refused their lunch of nutritious liver are condemned to receiving it, reheated, for supper. At the very least, in this instance, some new ingredients must be added to the dish.

It is true that it is not obvious what these might be and just as evident that time, the commodity Theresa May was hoping would work in her favour, is running out. The Government’s request for an extension to the Article 50 process is a fresh reminder that, Bercow or no Bercow, the Prime Minister’s strategy has failed. That plan depended on whittling the number of options available to MPs down from four — or even five — to just two, at which point, the thinking went, members would appreciate that a bad deal was both better than no deal or, for some, better than no Brexit.

Admittedly, and despite the speaker’s intervention, the government can still find a way back. A third meaningful vote remains possible. Erskine May — a name more famous now than was the case just a week ago — allows for that. A so-called “paving” motion would allow the House to register its determination to have a new vote on the vote in question; in this instance the Meaningful Vote. If the votes are there for the paving motion, they should be there for MV3. And if they’re not, well, they’re not and we are where we always have been: in a state of acute limbo.

Still, on the evidence of Bercow’s behaviour, those MPs who suspect he has abandoned the chair’s traditional neutrality do not appear to be entirely mistaken. At the very least, there is a striking consistency to the Speaker’s choice of amendments: those that might be deemed helpful to the Prime Minister are less likely to be selected than those that are not.

On one level, this is all very well and good. Parliament is not the executive’s plaything. Bercow has been a reforming speaker, in this sense anyway, and that is far from displeasing. If only he could have achieved this without being quite so Bercowian about it. Speakers, as a rule, are better being heard than seen and Bercow’s appetite for the limelight, his evident thirst for attention, and his determination to make the Commons a platform for the John Bercow Show neither does him much credit, nor advances the interests of the House.

Even so, a prime minister armed with a greater measure of empathy and emotional intelligence might have avoided some of these difficulties. Alas, these are qualities in which Mrs May is grievously deficient. The suggestion, often heard these days, that the government might decline to grant Bercow the traditional peerage afforded former Speakers is both wholly in character with Mrs May’s preference for petty vengeance and miserably counter-productive. If there is a crisis in government-speaker relations, then, the blame for this lies with both sides. Bercow may be a grandstanding ass; he still merits being treated, on account of the position he holds, with a measure of respect.

In any case, this is all merely a symptom of the rot that infests this government; a ministry that is somehow in office but very far from being in power. It is one small part of the Prime Minister’s Brexit woes but not the cause of them. The responsibility for those woes lies closer to home. It was the Prime Minister who cooked-up the meaning of Brexit with Nick Timothy back in the summer of 2016 — a discussion to which members of her cabinet were not privy — and all her troubles stem from the moment she defined the meaning of Brexit so narrowly. That ensured Brexit was for the 52 per cent, not everyone and, given that the 52 per cent agreed on one large abstract thing but very little else, she never even had the full backing of the 52 per cent. That’s on her, no one else.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.