As soon as John Bercow uttered the words, he knew they would be explosive.
In ruling that Theresa May couldn’t bring an unchanged Brexit deal back to parliament for a third time, the Speaker of the Commons sparked shock in Number 10 and delight among the prime minister’s critics.
Within seconds, one minister WhatsApped a colleague with a simple message: “WTF?” A Labour aide said simply: “Christ, he’s done it!” Downing Street staff, preparing for their afternoon briefing of journalists, were dumbfounded.
The initial response from the PM’s official spokesman was as frosty as it was pithy: “The Speaker didn’t give forewarning as to the content [of the statement], or indeed the fact he was making one.”
As the verdict reverberated through Westminster and outside (the words ‘Bercow’, ‘Speaker’ and ‘Theresa May’ were all trending on Twitter), Bercow clearly felt his statement was part of a long, historic arc. He cited a previous constitutional precedent from April 2, 1604, and went on to claim four different Speakers had endorsed it in the four hundred years since.
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Veteran Brexiteer Sir Bill Cash couldn’t resist the opening: “I wonder whether there is any connection between that and very shortly afterwards the Gunpowder Plot.” The guffaws of his fellow pro-Leave Tory MPs confirmed that they were happy with the ruling, and Cash declared the Speaker’s statement “makes an enormous amount of sense”.
Labour MPs who want alternatives to May’s plans were overjoyed too, believing Bercow had thrown a hand grenade into the whole parliamentary process and made a longer delay to Brexit inevitable. The only MPs who weren’t happy were the ministers and whips on the frontbench, frantically trying to recalibrate what on earth the PM’s next move could be.
The normally unflappable minister Rory Stewart couldn’t hide his irritation, comparing Bercow’s semantic gymnastics and long-winded statement to a nursery rhyme character. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean’,” Stewart complained.
Furious ministers were also quickly texting each other with rebuttals, including Bercow’s own quote from earlier this year: “If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing would change.” Publicly, solicitor general Robert Buckland declared: “We are in a major constitutional crisis.”
As he riffed on his ruling in reply to multiple questions that he had clearly been ready for, Bercow went even further in rubbing the government’s nose in it. Demolishing any lingering hopes that fresh legal advice from the Attorney General would allow May to present her deal afresh, he said:“Simply a change in an opinion about something wouldn’t in itself constitute a change in the offer.” In a nutshell, the PM would have to come up with either a new agreement with the EU or something else substantial before she can try to roll the dice once more in the Commons.
Bercow likes to tear up precedent, or build on it, wherever it boosts the rights of parliament in curbing the powers of government. And history was the right vehicle in many ways, as he and Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, the government’s manager of parliamentary procedure, have plenty of it.
Relations between her and Bercow have long been in the deep freeze, from his calling her ‘stupid’ to her support for an investigation into his alleged bullying of staff. In the chamber, the mercury reading was positively Antarctic.
Bercow jibed that during his statement, Leadsom was “playing with her electronic device”. She in turn dismissed suggestions that a Speaker’s conference should be held to sort Brexit, declaring she was “not confident” that MPs would be treated with “courtesy and respect”.
Amid pantomime ‘oohs’, Bercow hit back that he had chaired a previous Speaker’s conference “before the Right Honourable Lady entered the House of Commons”.
Some in Downing Street had been plotting to pummel MPs into submission, HuffPost UK understands, with a vote on Tuesday and on Wednesday this week to squeak a majority. Bercow, who spent the weekend plotting his move, may have sniffed the speculation too.
On the merits of Bercow’s ruling, several experts think he has a case. Hannah White, of the Institute for Government think tank, said: “The timing was a surprise, but not the substance. It definitely means we can’t a have a meaningful vote this week. It would be difficult for the prime minister to demonstrate she has leapt the bar of a substantial change to the deal by this week.”
The fact is that the Speaker had been planning his statement ever since last week, when Labour MPs Angela Eagle and Chris Bryant (who himself has an eye on the Speaker’s job next) pointed out that according to parliament’s ‘Bible’, Erskine May, the same proposition cannot be put again and again to MPs once it has been rejected.
But Bercow has always had an eye on the long view. Having won the Speakership in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal in 2009, with the support of Labour MPs as well as loyal Tory friends, many of his close allies have felt Brexit could deliver his biggest moment of all.
Although officially independent as Speaker, his former Tory colleagues have for years treated him with suspicion. David Cameron and a raft of other Conservatives have rather literally looked down on the 5ft 6in tennis fan, who cites Roger Federer as his hero.
Health minister Simon Burns famously referred to Bercow as a “sanctimonious dwarf” during a debate, but when the Tories staged a coup to oust him in the dying days of the 2015 parliament, Labour MPs rallied round to save him.
Dressed in a Hogwarts-style teacher’s gown, the Speaker has earned cult status in the United States ever since he ruled that Donald Trump was not a fit and proper person to address the Houses of Parliament on any state visit. British comedian John Oliver devoted a whole TV segment to his elaborate and verbose put-downs of MPs.
Yet it was May’s disastrous 2017 snap election and the loss of her majority that gave Bercow his real power. Overnight, his rulings could make or break major decisions of procedure. Although he insists he’s just the referee, many MPs on all sides see him as a player in the long Brexit game.
The really galling aspect of the Speaker’s ruling for ministers is precisely because both Brexiteers and Labour MPs were left happy with it. Brexiteers were already very wary of fresh attempts to bounce them into accepting the PM’s deal and now think that the chances of a no-deal exit have increased, which is agreeable to them.
Any extra delay to a vote, until legislation finally changes the Exit Day of March 29, they see as a bonus. To underline the buoyant mood, the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers were whistling ‘the Great Escape’ theme tune in the Commons tea room on Monday evening.
Conversely, backers of a second referendum and a ‘softer’ Brexit think their alternatives have been hugely boosted by Bercow’s intervention. This is because May herself pledged to go to the EU summit to request a long extension to the UK’s membership of the bloc if she couldn’t find a way to get a short extension beforehand. Some in government now think that a nine-month or even a year-long delay to Brexit is on the cards.
There is, however, a rearguard action within No.10. One option is to ‘prorogue’ parliament, ending the current session to allow a fresh start and a new vote. The real drawback is that the Queen, who oversees the State Opening of Parliament, may not want to be used as a mere procedural device in the bitter Brexit wars.
Another plan is to somehow change the Commons’ standing orders to get round Bercow’s plan, while some around May think a new piece of domestic legislation to help the DUP get a ‘lock’ on a future trade deal is the magic bullet.
A craftier option, backed by former No.10 constitutional expert Nikki da Costa, is to simply change the wording of the motion May puts before the Commons, adding the phrase ‘notwithstanding practice of the House’. A still further alternative is to ‘staple’ the Withdrawal Agreement Bill onto May’s motion. Some calmer voices among Tory ranks think the Speaker ruling merely tweaks things. “It just rules out a meaningful vote FOUR,” one backbench MP said.
Yet ironically, it may be the EU that actually gets May out of jail. If it comes up with a new agreement with the UK offering a long timetable for delaying Brexit, that could be tacked onto May’s deal and presented as the ‘substantial’ change Bercow demanded. It could even scare more MPs into voting for her plans.
As for Bercow, he has nothing to lose. His Tory critics may want a ‘Bollocks to Bercow’ sticker to match his wife’s ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker in her car. But they lack the numbers to oust him from the chair.
In the debate on Monday, it felt as though the Speaker had finally found the moment he had been waiting for for years. “I have never been pushed around, and I’m not going to start now,” he said. After his ruling, it looks like Theresa May is the one who is being pushed around on Brexit, by an assertive parliament.
Friends say that his 10th anniversary as Speaker, due on June 22, was set to be the moment Bercow announced he was finally stepping down. If there is indeed an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU, few will rule out him staying on just a bit longer.