World / Politics

May prepares to seek long Brexit delay as speaker's ruling creates 'constitutional crisis'

Reuters, Bloomberg

Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for Brexit were in disarray late Tuesday, after the House of Commons speaker torpedoed her plan to win Parliament’s approval of her twice-defeated deal for leaving the European Union.

After two-and-a-half years of negotiations with the bloc, Brexit remains uncertain — with options including a long postponement, exiting with May’s deal, an economically disruptive exit without a deal, or even another EU membership referendum.

Speaker John Bercow blindsided May’s office on Monday by ruling the government could not put the same Brexit deal to another vote in parliament unless it was substantially different to those defeated on Jan. 15 and March 12.

To ask Parliament to vote again on the agreement, it must be “fundamentally different,” Bercow said, and “in all likelihood” that means something new must be agreed with the bloc.

May is due to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday at which she had been expected to ask for a delay to Brexit, as the U.K. government tries to agree a way to leave the union after 46 years of membership.

An EU official said leaders would be reluctant to thrash out a new agreement at the summit, as matters are usually wrapped up by more junior officials beforehand. That means an extension is the most likely outcome, he said.

The Sun newspaper has cited unidentified government sources saying that May is drafting a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, formally requesting a delay of 9 to 12 months.

EU leaders could hold off making a final decision at that summit on any Brexit delay depending on what exactly May asks them for, according to senior diplomats in the bloc.

While the EU has ruled out reopening the divorce deal itself, the EU official said, the bloc could consider changes to the separate agreement that sets out future ties.

“Now it looks like we have to wait till the week after the Council to find out what happens,” a diplomat said.

In his statement Tuesday, Bercow invoked the rule — dating to 1604 — that the same motion cannot be put to a vote repeatedly.

“It is a necessary rule to ensure the  sensible use of the House’s time and the proper respect for the decisions which it takes. Decisions of the House matter,” he said. “They have weight. In many cases they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents.”

May’s deal was first rejected on Jan. 15 by a record 230 votes. She then reopened talks with the EU to secure further legal assurances on how the Irish border backstop guarantee would work. The prime minister then put the revised deal to another vote on March 12, when it was defeated by 391 votes to 242.

Bercow said he had allowed the Commons to vote for a second time on May’s deal because it was a substantially different proposal, with new legal texts for MPs to consider. They have reached their decision on it, he said, suggesting that even a new legal opinion from the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would not be enough to allow another vote if the deal itself is unchanged.

“What the government cannot 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,” Bercow said. “This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject. It is simply meant to indicate the test that the government must meet in order for me to rule that a third ‘meaningful vote’ can legitimately be held in this parliamentary session.”

The problem for May is that negotiations have finished and time has almost run out before the U.K. is due to leave the EU on March 29. The prime minister had been working to put her deal back to the House of Commons for approval by Wednesday, with a vote penciled in for Tuesday. Bercow’s ruling cuts May’s chances of getting it approved on this timescale, and perhaps at all. The pound fell as Bercow spoke, before paring losses.

Officials privately accused the speaker of overreaching his powers to help pro-EU politicians deliver a softer divorce, saying another vote on May’s agreement was now unlikely before Thursday’s European Union summit.

The delay would potentially give time to May’s opponents to force a rethink of the divorce, and the government sees the move as another attempt by Bercow to frustrate Brexit by helping Parliament seize control of the process, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The prime minister’s office issued a terse statement saying the move “requires proper consideration,” but the anger among government officials was palpable. May’s team were said to be taking legal advice as they considered their response to the ruling.

Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay acknowledged that the ruling meant a vote this week on May’s deal was less likely, but added that ministers were studying a way out of the impasse and indicated that government still planned a third vote on May’s deal.

“This is a moment of crisis for our country,” Barclay said. “The ruling from the speaker has raised the bar and I think that makes it more unlikely the vote will be this week.”

“We always said that in terms of bringing a vote back for a third time we would need to see a shift from parliamentarians in terms of the support — I think that still is the case.”

Barclay, who last week said the U.K. should be unafraid of a no-deal exit, indicated the government was looking at different options and that circumstances, such an extension or a shift in support, would indicate a change in context.

“The speaker himself has pointed to possible solutions, he himself has said in earlier rulings we should not be bound by precedent,” Barclay said. “You can have the same motion but where the circumstances have changed.”

He ruled out May asking Queen Elizabeth to cut short the entire parliamentary session, known as prorogation, saying that involving the 92-year-old monarch in Brexit would be a bad idea.

“The one thing everyone would agree on is that involving Her Majesty in any of the issues around Brexit is not the way forward, so I don’t see that a realistic option,” Barclay said.

“The ties of the constitution are being stretched to the breaking point,” Solicitor General Robert Buckland told BBC TV.

“I don’t want to be part of the generation that breaks those ties,” he added.

“That’s why we have to be extremely careful where we tread.”