Rt. Honourable John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom has stepped into the middle of the Brexit debate with an 11th hour decision from the chair. Citing Erskine May – the bible for Westminster-style parliamentary democracy procedure – the Speaker stated that the same question cannot be brought back to the chamber for debate and vote during the same session. This is a long-standing rule within the parliament system – once the House has made a decision on a matter, it cannot be re-introduced or re-debated during the same session. This is to avoid the scenario where the mover of a motion is not happy with the result of the vote and then decides to continuously try to move the same motion hoping to get a different result.
Because that is exactly what Prime Minister May and her front bench are trying to do. They tweaked the Brexit deal motion to accept between the January and March votes, enough so that it was not substantially the same motion. But to now re-introduce the same motion closer to the Brexit deadline and then hope for a different result is a violation of the rules of the House. And the Speaker called her out on this maneuver.
So what now? There are a few options:
Amend the Motion: Much like the difference between the January and March versions of the motion, if the motion is now amended to be substantively different, it can be introduced for debate and voted upon. The key phrase, of course, is substantively different.
Prorogue the House: This is a trickier option. It has been suggested by the Solicitor-General that this is an option, but it would require the Queen to agree. Normally the acceptance of a request to prorogue should be pro forma, but is it appropriate to prorogue the House to re-introdcue the same motion? Can the House be prorogued to usurp the rules of the House? A similar issue arose in Canada in 2008 when then Prime Minister Harper prorogued the House to avoid a no-confidence vote . It is one of the last remaining rights of the Sovereign to decide if the House will be prorogued. However, if the Queen declines, it is a constitutional custom that the government is to resign.
A second issue is that there are only ten days until the self-imposed Brexit deadline of March. Proroguing will require a throne speech to be introduced and have at least some debate. Is this the type of delay that is advisable at this time?
Dissolve the House: The Government can ask for the House to be dissolved and an election be called. This is not a realistic option, as the deadline for Brexit is set into law and if it is not repealed or amended by the House of Commons before March 29 it will trigger the the exit without a deal. Some may prefer this option, but many have expressed concern with this choice, including a majority of MPs in the House of Commons just last week.
Introduce an Entirely New Motion: A fourth option is to abandon the deal that has been put forward twice so far and to present a new option or to allow the House of Commons to present motions that may be able to garner a majority of MPs support. Of course, this would mean abandoning the deal that was struck with the EU, but ti is clear, to date, that there is no support for this option in the House.
There are no easy options here, but it is clear that Prime Minister May cannot continue to “play chicken” with the Parliament. She has had a strategy to date that if she got close enough to the March 29 deadline she would have enough MPs fall in line due to no other plausible option. The House has spoken on her deal motion and it is now incumbent upon her and her government to open the debate up to other options that may have the support of a majority of the House. She needs to admit her deal is not salvageable and start to find a solution that works for the Parliament and her country.