House of Commons speaker John Bercow has made a dramatic intervention in the Brexit process, ruling that Theresa May cannot bring her EU withdrawal agreement back to MPs for a third “meaningful vote” if the deal is “substantially similar” to the one that has been rejected twice so far.
In a move that casts doubt on Downing Street's plan to bring the deal back for a third attempt and sets up a serious constitutional clash between Parliament and the government, Bercow cited precedent from 1604 as he said he would not allow the “same fundamental proposition" to be put to the Commons again.
The speaker did not rule out a third Brexit vote entirely, signalling that he would allow the government to put another deal before the House if it was different from the withdrawal agreement proposed at the previous two votes.
But raising the bar in terms of what he would permit, Bercow said that "in all likelihood" a change in opinion on the UK side would not be enough. Instead, a new "fundamentally different" deal would have the be negotiated with the EU. Brussels has previously said it will not take part in any further negotiations.
Westminster was divided on what the ruling means for the next stage of the Brexit process.
Hardline Brexiteers welcomed the move, claiming it made a no-deal Brexit more likely because, they said, it made it tougher for Parliament to agree a solution to the current impasse before March 29, the day the UK is legally due to exit the European Union.
Remain supporters also backed Bercow's decision in the belief that it increased the chances of an extension to the Article 50 process, and thus a lengthy delay to Brexit.
Allies of the prime minister attempted to calm the mood, insisting that if a majority could be found for the deal, then a majority could be found to overturn the Bercow's ruling. Whitehall sources said the government was exploring its options in terms of circumventing the speaker's intervention tonight.
In an indication that the government may succeed in bringing the same deal back, Bercow confirmed that a third vote was technically possible if the House voted to overturn the convention preventing multiple votes on the same motion.
In the case of the second meaningful vote, Bercow said he allowed it to be put because "it could be credibly argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the House on the 15th January".
He said: "It contained a number of legal changes, which the government considered to be binding, and which had been agreed with the European Union after further intensive discussions," noting that it was also accompanied by the publication of three new documents.
Bercow said that he was acting on concerns from MPs, telling the Commons: "Members on both sides of the House, and indeed on both sides of the Brexit argument have expressed their concerns to me about the House being repeatedly asked to pronounce on the same fundamental proposition."
His position was immediately supported by the leading Brexiteer Conservative Bill Cash. Last week, Remain-voting Labour MP Chris Bryant tabled and then withdrew an amendment calling on the speaker to prevent the government from bringing the same deal back.
Bercow said the rules were in place to ensure "the sensible use of the House's time and the proper respect for the decisions which it takes".
He continued: "Decisions of the House matter. They have weight. In many cases they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents. Absence of speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention but to general compliance with it."
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at email@example.com.
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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