Analysis: The week Theresa May turned on parliament

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 22 March 2019 in Inside Politics

With the Brexit deadline fast approaching, UK politics descended further into chaos

Image credit: PA

Given the significance of the question at hand, it seemed fitting John Bercow began his statement to the House of Commons with a history lesson.

In a speech delivered to an oddly hushed chamber, the Speaker began to run through the history of the parliamentary convention at hand, starting on 2 April 1604, before making brief stops in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. “Indeed, Erskine May [the text on parliamentary practice] makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920,” he explained.

The convention in question – the convention with the power to summon a packed chamber of MPs – sits on page 397 of the 24th edition of Erskine May. It states: “A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”

Still Bercow ran through the convention’s precedents. MPs watched with bated breath. This was Bercow building his case, and he was taking his time about it.

The first meaningful vote on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was held on 15 January, he said, which the government lost by a margin of 230 votes, “the largest in parliamentary history”. They knew that already, though.

The second took place on 12 March, after a significant delay, he said, but was “again, very heavily defeated”. The MPs knew that too.

Finally, though, he got to the point at hand.

“That second meaningful vote motion did not fall foul of the convention about matters already having been decided during the same session,” Bercow said. “This was because it could be credibly argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the house on 15 January.

“It contained a number of legal changes which the government considered to be binding and which had been agreed with the European Union after intensive discussions. Moreover, the government’s second meaningful vote motion was accompanied by the publication of three new documents – two issued jointly with the EU and a unilateral declaration from the UK not objected to by the EU. In procedural terms, it was therefore quite proper that the debate and the second vote took place last week.”

Still, they waited. Painfully, they waited, though anyone watching would have had an idea where this was going.

So what about the third vote, scheduled for the following day?

“This is my conclusion,” Bercow told them. “If the government wishes to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the house on 12 March, that would be entirely in order. What the government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the house the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes.”

Chaos ensued. MPs jumped and shouted. They waved their arms. And a series of points of order followed, with most questions either focusing on what would constitute a different deal (how different is different?) as well as a few gripes over why Bercow hadn’t warned them about this earlier – as if the Speaker was somehow responsible for an MP choosing to vote the deal down, all the while knowing they would vote for it later.

For its part, the government didn’t seem to know what to do. It was as though no one had planned for this, with Number 10 forced to send a junior minister to the chamber, unable to offer any real answers, while it scrambled to work out a response.

That process took two days, with Downing Street eventually confirming the Prime Minister would ask for only a short extension to Article 50, despite having previously promised MPs that the UK would face a long extension if they did not vote for her deal before Thursday.

Just a week earlier, her de facto deputy, David Lidington, told the Commons: “If the house has not come together around a deal by Thursday next week, the only viable extension would be a long one. We would have to hold the European parliament elections, and the government would facilitate a process with the house to consider the potential ways forward to reach a majority.”

May herself had said much the same, claiming an extension would “undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Union elections in May 2019”.

But then, to put the twist into context, Theresa May had also spent the last few months promising there would be no extension to Article 50 at all. One week, there would be no extension. The next week, if there was an extension, it would be a long one. The week after that, and the UK was requesting an extension, through a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, until 30 June.

This plan was then backed by the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, with the parties releasing a joint statement supporting an extension so legislation could be in place to prevent a no-deal exit. The condition? That parliament should sit in continuous session until it could set out a clear plan.

So Bercow’s intervention certainly brought a change in thinking from Downing Street, with the “only viable extension” referenced by Lidington turning from a long one into a very short one.

Pressure from Eurosceptic Tories was obviously a factor, but whatever the reasoning, the PM’s decision seemed to set her up for a game of chicken with MPs, with the PM seemingly intent on pushing them with a choice between her deal or no deal.

And it was here things took a more disturbing turn, with the PM appearing inside Downing Street – yes, it was the lectern again – to speak directly to the British people.

The signs had been visible hours earlier, at PMQs, where she announced that “this house has indulged itself on Europe for too long. it’s time for this house to determine that it will deliver on Brexit for the British people. That’s what the British people deserve – they deserve better than this house has given them so far.”

Yet, despite her comments earlier in the day, this speech represented an escalation in rhetoric.

Turning to the delay, the UK Prime Minister blamed her failure to reach a workable agreement with the EU on parliament. She said: “Of this I am absolutely sure: you the public have had enough. You’re tired of the infighting. You’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows.

“Tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit, when you have real concerns about your children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”

MPs reacted in outrage, amid concern that MPs, already receiving death threats, would be at even greater risk because the PM had turned on them, from inside Downing Street, on national TV, as well as social media (the government paid for the speech to appear on Facebook feeds). Labour MP Lisa Nandy called May’s language “dangerous and reckless”, while Wes Streeting added: “Her speech was incendiary and irresponsible. If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility.”

And while some questioned the PM’s decision to frame herself as the voice of the people, being frustrated by parliamentary democracy, and what that would mean for the future of government in the UK, the fate of the next stage of the UK’s attempts to leave the EU rested in the hands of EU leaders.

And early signs weren’t great, despite President Tusk suggesting some sort of extension was possible. As he saw it, although it was likely all 27 EU members would agree to sign off on an extension, their backing would depend on a “positive” vote in the House of Commons.

So May’s latest strategy – if you can call it a strategy – remained intact, at least for a while, allowing her to return to the UK for yet another attempt at winning support. But walking through the doors of the Commons, days after attacking MPs of all parties, she is unlikely to expect a friendly reception.

Meanwhile, confidence in the UK Government – both on the part of voters, as well as EU states – is running short. As European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put it: “If Great Britain does not leave at the end of March, then we are, I am sorry to say, in the hands of God. And I think even God sometimes reaches a limit to his patience.”




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