Was John Bercow correct to rule the Government couldn’t bring back the meaningful vote for a third time this week? He was certainly within his right, and although he relied on a convention that took him back to 1604, the rule does exist for a very sound reason: to prevent governments bombarding MPs with the same question over and over again until they eventually capitulate, perhaps out of sheer fatigue. His decision on when or not to invoke parliamentary precedent, is of course hugely debatable.
Why he did so after the second vote and not before, is less clear – arguably far weightier developments have taken place over the last week since MV2, in which MPs voted to rule out leaving without a deal and voted to extend Article 50. Given the Attorney General’s advice last week prior to MV2 that the ‘legal risk’ remained that the UK could have no lawful means of exiting the backstop, it would have seemed more logical, and more in-line with Erskine May, to prevent a second vote at that point. For more analysis on this, please see every newspaper published this morning.
More interesting, and less discussed, however were Bercow’s answers to MPs questions after his statement. Most notably he advised no less than 14 MPs that any future decision he might make would be dependent on the ‘circumstance’ at the time (whilst declining to give any further detail), and used one answer to chide the Leader of the House, and Deputy Chief Whip, for ‘playing with her electronic device’. Use of mobile devices ‘to keep up to date with emails…provided that it causes no disturbance’ has been permitted in the Chamber since 2007.
But of all his answers, perhaps the most interesting, and in my opinion, alarming, is his assertion that ‘I can safely say that I have never lost a wink of sleep over any work-related matter’. To repeat, the Speaker of the House of Commons, presiding over procedure and debate in a period that commentators are ever frequently describing as a ‘constitutional crisis’, has ‘never lost a wink of sleep’. Should this not concern us? I lost sleep working at WHSmith in my gap year in 2005 when I realised I’d mislabelled a batch of books BOGOF; I’d sure as hell be losing sleep now in the Speaker’s position.