The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has ruled that Theresa May cannot bring her Brexit withdrawal Bill back for a third vote as it remains “substantially the same” – meaning that a General Election looks increasingly likely unless the government can secure “substantial” changes so it can be brought back to the house for another vote.
Bercow’s ruling cited parliamentary conventions, dating all the way back to 1604, which state that MPs cannot be asked to vote on exactly the same bill more than once in the same session.
Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal bill has already been emphatically rejected by MPs twice, suffering a record-breaking defeat by a margin of 230 votes in January, followed by a slightly reduced margin of 149 votes on a second vote last week.
During his ruling, Bercow stated that last week’s second vote was “in order“, but that any further votes would require the bill to pass a “test” to ensure it has been changed substantially.
Theresa May was widely expected to bring her Brexit deal back for a third vote at some point this week, but Bercow’s incredible ruling has significantly increased the prospect of an imminent General Election to break an unprecedented impending Brexit impasse.
The EU have already definitively stated that there is no chance of reopening negotiations on Mrs May’s deal, meaning that any “substantial changes” remain extremely unlikely – especially not before the March 29th Brexit deadline.
One Tory Minister has already reportedly suggested that Bercow’s ruling has now put the UK into a “constitutional crisis”.
This might sound a bit boring but it's massive – minister tells me he's now made this a 'constitutional crisis' – as the law stands we are leaving the EU in ten days – Speaker has just said the PM cant have another go at getting her deal through https://t.co/kRwUBX3r5j
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) March 18, 2019
In a response to a Point of Order made by Labour MP Hilary Benn, Bercow also indicated that any “substantial changes” would need to be a major renegotiation at EU level, rather than any new legal clarifications.
With the prospect of substantial changes that would meet the test looking unlikely, the government now has few options left to move things forward.
One option is that the government could try to open a new Parliamentary “session” to bypass the rule.
The official Parliamentary website currently says that sessions usually last for a year, stating:
“There is no fixed length for a session, but they generally follow the same pattern from spring to spring, with a number of recesses”
Therefore, it is possible that the government could try to hold a vote on essentially rewriting the rules to open a new session.
Another option might be to try and convince MPs to vote on a rule change to allow multiple votes on the same bill – although this may be considered particularly controversial.
However, if MPs cannot agree on any of the two options, the UK would indeed be into the realms of a constitutional crisis – with a vote of no confidence and a General Election looking like increasingly likely outcomes.
Some are also arguing that the government may simply try to run out the Brexit clock and try to blame MPs for the resultant No Deal exit – however, given that MPs have already rejected leaving without a deal, this would almost certainly result in a significant backlash from all sides of the house.