THE FIRST WEEK of 2019 in the House of Commons has been a tumultuous one – particularly for the Speaker of the House, John Bercow.
With British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal due before the House of Commons next week, five days of debates on Brexit scheduled, and a number of tense amendments related to the deal already passed, it would be easy to miss this story in a whirlwind of Brexit-related news.
It all centred around a vote on a Withdrawal Agreement amendment which passed on Wednesday by 308 to 297: if Theresa May’s deal fails to pass through the House of Commons next Tuesday, MPs voted to give the Prime Minister just three days after this – so until Friday – to bring forward her alternative plan.
The ‘Greive’ amendment, tabled by Tory Remainer Dominic Grieve, reduced the original timeline from 21 days to just three, putting more pressure on May’s government and infuriating her Tories.
As House Speaker, it’s Bercow’s job to umpire the extraordinary and unruly debates in the House of Commons, and deciding whether legislation and amendments are worthy of coming before the House.
Bercow chose this amendment to be put before the House of Commons, against the advice of his own clerks (which surround him in the photo above looking displeased).
Where they disagreed was over the meaning of the word “forthwith”: up until now, the Commons’ Standing Orders‘ references to motions being put to the House “forthwith” have meant that they cannot be amended. But Bercow has gone against this, and decided that it means they can be amended, but cannot be debated upon.
Nigel Farage summed up the outrage against the decision neatly, when he said this on LBC on Wednesday:
John Bercow is not impartial on this, or frankly any other issue. I think he stepped way over the mark today, he’s broken with parliamentary precedent, he’s ignored the legal advice he was given by the clarks of the House, he’s refused to publish that advice.
A few months ago he was going to be sacked, but he was kept in place, largely by the Labour party because he wants to disrupt Brexit.
The amendment is also seen as both infuriating Theresa May’s government, and putting pressure on people to vote for her deal; with just three days to come up with an alternative plan, is that guaranteed to be better than the Withdrawal Agreement, which went through years of negotiations?
Dominic Grieve took a different view. The barrister and Queen’s Counsel said in response to the controversy:
“The Standing Orders of the House are very complex and very archaic. My view is that in tabling this amendment is that I did it in good faith, on the basis that I wanted the Speaker and indeed the House authorities to consider it as a possibility of being selected, and they told me it is selectable.
Looking at the Standing Orders… there is a logical route that allows this amendment to be taken. It may, as I say, require an interpretation of the rules in a particular way which some people may differ from, but at the end of the day, ultimately you have to have an arbiter and it’s the Speaker, about how the rules are interpreted.
So what does Bercow himself say?
When the House voted in favour of the amendment, Bercow argued that that it was proof that his decision was validated.
“If we only went by precedent, manifestly nothing would ever change,” he said.
He also faced accusations of sporting a “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker on his car. During a debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Tory MP Adam Holloway said:
“We’ve all noticed in recent months a sticker on your car making derogatory comments about Brexit. This is a serious point about partiality. Have you driven that car with the sticker there?”
After calling for order amongst the outcries from MPs, Bercow responded:
“There was a factual error in [the honourable gentleman’s] opening remarks, I’m sure it was an inadvertent error and I mean that most sincerely, but it was a factual error.
The honourable gentleman said that it had been noticed that there was a sticker in my car. That sticker on the subject of Brexit happens to be affixed to, or in the windscreen of… my wife’s car.
Yes, and I’m sure the honourable gentleman wouldn’t suggest for one moment that a wife is somehow the property or chattel of her husband. She is entitled to her views, that sticker is not mine and that’s the end of it.