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Bercow, Brexit and balls in the air

Editorial Staff

Yesterday, the Speaker of the House of Commons made a ruling. In accordance with Parliamentary Rules dating back to the 17th Century, he said that a motion could not be put before the house over and over again in the hope that the Members would tire of saying no. There's uproar in some quarters, some saying he's sabotaging Brexit. He's doing nothing of the sort. He's just making sure that the Government doesn't drop the ball.

John Bercow's job as Speaker of the House is to manage what happens in the Chamber. He is supposed to be above party politics and, mostly, Speakers are and Bercow is, mostly, no exception. But his statement that he will not allow a so called MV3 (a term that Bercow said he did not like, shorthand Third Meaningful Vote) unless it comes back with a material difference from the first two.

The Speaker's statement, made on the 18th March at a time that some might consider auspicious (3.33 pm) (https://hansard.parliament.uk/...) was made in response to several questions from both sides of the House. For example "On 13 March, however, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) asked on a point of order, at column 394, whether it would be proper for the Government to keep bringing the same deal back to the House ad infinitum." At that point, the Speaker said no ruling was necessary but, then it became clear that PM May was thinking of trying the same motion a third time.

The Speaker said

The 24th edition of “Erskine May” states on page 397:

“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.”

It goes on to state:

“Attempts have been made to evade this rule by raising again, with verbal alterations, the essential portions of motions which have been negatived. Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgment of the Chair.”

This convention is very strong and of long standing, dating back to 2 April 1604. Last Thursday, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) quoted examples of occasions when the ruling had been reasserted by four different Speakers of this House, notably in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. Each time, the Speaker of the day ruled that a motion could not be brought back because it had already been decided in that same Session of Parliament. Indeed, “Erskine May” makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920.

One of the reasons why the rule has lasted so long is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes. 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; thus, as “Erskine May” notes, the Public Bill Office has often disallowed Bills on the ground that a Bill with the same or very similar long title cannot be presented again in the same Session.

The Speaker said that there were material changes between the first time the deal was before the House and the Second, in the so-called "meaningful votes."

But, if the same deal were to be brought back again, and perhaps again, as the Speaker said is rumoured, " if the Government wish 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."

Bercow said that the statement was to "indicate the test which the Government must meet in order for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held in this parliamentary Session."

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