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No third Brexit vote allowed: John Bercow

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow yesterday ruled that the Government may not bring a third vote on a motion that has been rejected by the House twice:

3.33pm
Mr Speaker

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.” ...

In my judgment, that second meaningful vote motion did not fall foul of the convention about matters already having been decided during the same Session. This was because it could be credibly argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the House on 15 January. It contained a number of legal changes which the Government considered to be binding and which had been agreed with the European Union after intensive discussions. Moreover, the Government’s second meaningful vote motion was accompanied by the publication of three new documents—two issued jointly with the EU and a unilateral declaration from the UK not objected to by the EU. In procedural terms, it was therefore quite proper that the debate and the second vote took place last week. The Government responded to its defeat, as they had promised to do, by scheduling debates about a no-deal Brexit and an extension of article 50 on 13 and 14 March respectively.

It has been strongly rumoured, although I have not received confirmation of this, that a third, and even possibly a fourth, meaningful vote motion will be attempted. Hence this statement, which is designed to signal what would be orderly and what would not. This is my conclusion: 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. This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject; it is simply meant 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.

Here's video from Parliament TV:

This has caused apoplexy in the Government benches, and makes it almost impossible for Britain to exit the EU next Friday:

With 11 days to go until Britain is due to leave the EU, May was forced to pull her plans for another meaningful vote because John Bercow said she could not ask MPs to pass the same deal, after they rejected it twice by huge margins. EU officials, meanwhile, were considering offering her a new date for a delayed Brexit to resolve the crisis.

Bercow’s surprise intervention means May is likely to have to go to Thursday’s Brussels summit with a request for a long extension to article 50, which could mean the UK has to spend more than £100m on participating in European parliament elections.

Sources in Brussels suggested the EU may offer May a helping hand by agreeing on a new delayed Brexit date at the summit, which could allow her to argue next week that the deal is sufficiently different to merit a third vote in parliament.

Some hardline Conservative Brexit supporters were pleased that May’s efforts to pass her deal were being frustrated, hoping the EU would veto an extension and the UK would be forced to exit without a deal on 29 March. Government sources downplayed such a scenario, saying the EU was highly likely to grant an extension.

Writing for the Post, British journalist Nick Cohen says this is one demonstration of how "the quest for Brexit has killed Britain:"

Brexit Britain has reached populism’s inevitable terminus. The government is collapsing as Conservative ministers vote against their own administration with impunity. The equally chaotic opposition cannot oppose. No one can say whether my country will crash out of the European Union provoking an economic and social crisis. Honest commentators don’t make predictions anymore, but stare at the wreckage with slack-jawed disbelief.

The British crisis is deeper than the United States’ because at its heart lies a failure of truth-telling. We have no equivalent of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives; no power center or coherent voice that can expose the populist politicians whose combination of cynicism and magical thinking led us to this pass.

Like populist movements across the West, the Leave campaign refused to make a tough call. Instead, it promised that wrenching change could be achieved without pain. Unlike the nationalists of the 20th century, who fetishized sacrifice, their successors are the authentic representatives of a baby-boomer generation that wants to have it all. Boris Johnson, an upper-class politician who could make President Trump seem a model of integrity, and his fellow supporters of Brexit promised that the task of securing a fresh trade deal with the E.U. would be “one of the easiest in human history.” As it has turned out, the tension of reconciling the populist propaganda of the referendum campaign with protecting the economy has caused a nervous breakdown in politics, and the real negotiations haven’t even begun yet. Meanwhile, British exceptionalists, like their American counterparts, insisted that other countries would bow before us. We were repeatedly assured that the E.U. needed us more than we needed them, a brag that grows more absurd by the day.

It is anyone’s guess what will happen next. There’s talk this week that perhaps May’s withdrawal agreement will pass Parliament on the third or fourth attempt, but parliamentary procedure might prevent her trying again. No one knows. Parliament said on Thursday it is now prepared to ask the E.U. to extend the deadline for Britain’s departure beyond March 29. The E.U. is under no obligation to agree. Even if it does, what would be the point? There is no consensus on what we should do next. Britain is deadlocked, and the catastrophic possibility of the country crashing out of the E.U. without a deal should not be underestimated.

I have no wish to diminish the seriousness of the criticisms against Trump or suggest that he is fit to govern a great country. But Trump will be gone by 2020 or, if the Democrats mess up, by 2024. Brexit gives every indication that it will paralyze Britain for a generation.

If it were any other country, I would gleefully munch popcorn while watching the circus act. But this is my ancestral homeland, my country's second-closest ally, the strongest military power in Europe after Russia, and the largest economy in Europe after Germany. This is insane. And no one knows what will happen.

UK government commits to not banging out of the EU unilaterally

In her speech to the House of Commons this afternoon, PM Theresa May promised a vote on March 13th to avoid a calamitous withdrawal from the European Union less than two weeks later:

Here's the relevant bit from Hansard:

As the Government committed to the House last week, we are today publishing the paper assessing our readiness for no deal. I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of a no deal. But this paper provides an honest assessment of the very serious challenges it would bring in the short term and further reinforces why the best way for this House to honour the referendum result is to leave with a deal. 

As I committed to the House, the Government will today table an amendable motion for debate tomorrow. But I know Members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out—that if the Government do not come back with a further meaningful vote, or they lose that vote, Parliament will not have time to make its voice heard on the next steps. I know too that Members across the House are deeply concerned by the effect of the current uncertainty on businesses. So today I want to reassure the House by making three further commitments. First, we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest. Secondly, if the Government have not won a meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March, then they will, in addition to their obligations to table a neutral, amendable motion under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, table a motion to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March, at the latest, asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March. So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.

Thirdly, if the House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to article 50, and, if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. ... They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister, and I will stick by them, as I have previous commitments to make statements and table amendable motions by specific dates.

But let me be clear—I do not want to see article 50 extended. Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March.

The video includes all the derisive laughter from both sides of the house.

This, along with Jeremy Corbyn's about-face yesterday, means that there could actually be a second Brexit referendum:

There is now a real prospect of another referendum. Labour has committed to several parliamentary manoeuvres including one final stab at its own Brexit, which will certainly fail; another to support Yvette Cooper’s attempt to push no deal further into the realm of destructive fantasy, where it belongs; and a vote on an amendment demanding that any Brexit deal approved by the Commons must be ratified in a public referendum. In that public vote, Labour will campaign to remain in the EU.

“Sources” within Labour continue to deny this new reality, even as its senior frontbenchers have announced it. “It’s a disgrace,” one told me, “that unelected, unsourced voices are briefing against Labour’s frontbench.” “If they want to speak for the Labour party,” a staffer said, “they should stand for the Labour party.” The position as it stands now is not the seismic shift some suggest. It is a continuation of the policy adopted at Labour’s party conference last September. And credit for it belongs with the grassroots of the Labour party.

So, will the UK come back from the brink on Brexit? We'll find out in the next four weeks. 

Labour backs new Brexit referendum

In an unexpected twist, Jeremy Corbyn announced at a Labour party conference today that he supports a "people's vote" on the Brexit deal the UK Government worked out with the EU, and that hardly anyone in the UK agrees with:

In a statement, the party said it would “put forward or support an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit”.

Corbyn will tell MPs the party “cannot and will not accept” May running down the clock towards no deal. He will say EU officials and leaders in Brussels and Madrid found Labour’s alternative Brexit plan “serious and credible” and it could win support across the House of Commons.

“One way or another, we will do everything in our power to prevent no deal and oppose a damaging Tory Brexit based on Theresa May’s overwhelmingly rejected deal,” he said.

“That’s why, in line with our conference policy, we are committed to also putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”

Other news sources suggest that Corbyn's volte face came about after the resignations of 9 MPs from Labour last week.

The next Commons vote on Brexit will take place March 12th, according to sources in Parliament, giving the Government only two weeks to react to another rejection before crashing out of Europe. With both Corbyn and May playing chicken with the British public, I can only wonder when the next election will happen.

Everyone's talking about John Bercow

As I noted last week, John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has exercised more control over the Brexit debate in Parliament than previous speakers would have dared. Today, Parliament votes on amendments to the Brexit deal that could radically change its outcome, and Bercow is the one choosing which amendments, and which MPs, get heard. The Guardian has a podcast going even more into the details. And yesterday, the New Yorker brought the issue to the smart set:

On Thursday, I spoke to Vernon Bogdanor, a visiting professor of government at King’s College London, who is one of Britain’s leading constitutional scholars, about Bercow. “I think he has damaged the role of the Speaker,” Bogdanor told me. “Every other Speaker in living memory has been scrupulously neutral, never been accused of any partisanship. He is the first.” Next week, the pressure will increase further. Bercow’s every call will be scrutinized. On Tuesday—the next big day in Brexit—the Speaker has to choose six amendments from M.P.s, which will set the course of the drama for the coming weeks. Another plot among rebel M.P.s, who are searching for a cross-party solution to Brexit, is to suspend the rule that gives the government’s agenda priority in the House of Commons. If Bercow allows that, it would probably be the most dramatic act by a Speaker since William Lenthall defied King Charles I, who was trying to arrest five M.P.s, in January, 1642—and that helped set off the First English Civil War.

One of the saddest, and most maddening, aspects of Brexit has been the timidity of many British politicians to speak their mind about what is happening to the country. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn has ever said—or is likely to say—that leaving the E.U. will be positive for Britain’s health, wealth, culture, or well-being. It is both shocking and not surprising that one of the only people who really isn’t allowed to have a point of view about Brexit seems determined to express it—and that isn’t helping, either.

The votes are underway at this writing. I'll have more later today or early tomorrow, and some analysis of tomorrow's PMQs.

We've already seen what happens when the UK leaves abruptly

Author Pankaj Mishra thinks Brexit may be comeuppance for the British ruling class. Exhibit 1: Indian Partition:

Describing Britain’s calamitous exit from its Indian empire in 1947, the novelist Paul Scott wrote that in India the British “came to the end of themselves as they were” — that is, to the end of their exalted idea about themselves. Scott was among those shocked by how hastily and ruthlessly the British, who had ruled India for more than a century, condemned it to fragmentation and anarchy; how Louis Mountbatten, accurately described by the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts as a “mendacious, intellectually limited hustler,” came to preside, as the last British viceroy of India, over the destiny of some 400 million people.

Britain’s rupture with the European Union is proving to be another act of moral dereliction by the country’s rulers. The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years. Though originally a “Remainer,” Prime Minister Theresa May has matched their arrogant obduracy, imposing a patently unworkable timetable of two years on Brexit and laying down red lines that undermined negotiations with Brussels and doomed her deal to resoundingly bipartisan rejection this week in Parliament.

Mountbatten, derided as “Master of Disaster” in British naval circles, was a representative member of a small group of upper- and middle-class British men from which the imperial masters of Asia and Africa were recruited. Abysmally equipped for their immense responsibilities, they were nevertheless allowed by Britain’s brute imperial power to blunder through the world — a “world of whose richness and subtlety,” as E.M. Forster wrote in “Notes on the English Character,” they could “have no conception.”

From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some whingers in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair once warmed by his role model Winston Churchill, and the top-hatted, theatrically retro Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose fund management company has set up an office within the European Union even as he vehemently scorns it, the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers.

And yet, here we are, 10 weeks from Brexit with no plan and no likelihood of one. I hope on Her Majesty's petticoats that they hold another referendum and stop this from happening.

May lives to fight another day

No one really thought the UK government would collapse today (though it should have), but only because the norms of British politics have collapsed instead:

Theresa May has comfortably won the no confidence vote, by 325 to 306 - a majority of 19. The vote came after a debate which saw Jeremy Corbyn accuse her of leading “a zombie government”. And Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, closed the debate with a powerful speech saying May does not “possess the necessary political skills, empathy, ability, and most crucially the policy, to lead this country any longer”.

Opposition party leaders have refused an invitation from May to join her for talks about an alternative approach to Brexit until she abandons some of her red lines. After the vote May said she would like talks to start tonight. But Corbyn and the Lib Dems said they would not engage with her until she ruled out a no-deal Brexit. And the SNP said she would have to be willing to discuss extending article 50 and holding a second referendum before they agreed to participate.

This was PMQs today:

Go home, Theresa. You're done.

The much-anticipated vote in the UK House of Commons on Theresa May's Brexit deal failed by a spectacular 432-202 vote. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a vote of no confidence, which could lead to elections before the end of February:

In her final appeal in Parliament, Mrs. May impressed on the lawmakers the importance of the vote facing them. “The responsibility on each and every one of us at this moment is profound,” she said, “for this is a historic decision that will set the future of our country for generations.”

Like most others, though, the prime minister has no easy answers about the way forward. She has signaled that she will appeal to the European Union in Brussels for concessions and try again to win parliamentary approval, but the bloc is unlikely to grant her any.

With no consensus behind any one pathway, and a vanishing window for further negotiation, more radical solutions are rising to the fore.

One group of lawmakers is campaigning for a repeat referendum, which could overturn the mandate to leave, and another favors leaving the European Union on March 29 without a withdrawal agreement, a move that experts warn could lead to shortages of some foods and an economic downturn.

“This is probably the most important piece of legislation for decades, and the executive can’t get it through,” said Tim Stanley, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph. “It’s a very dramatic moment.”

The problem, of course, is that almost no one has told the British public the complete truth about Brexit. Some British believe that crashing out of the EU will solve all their problems; of course, none of those people is an economist.

I can't see how the Tories, let alone May, survive this. But no one has an idea that can pass Commons right now. If Britain just leaves the EU without a deal...whoo boy. But that horrific possibility just became significantly more likely today.

Confidence

After lying to nearly everyone about how easy the UK leaving the EU would be, pro-Brexit members of the Conservative Party have forced a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Theresa May for negotiating a realistic deal with Brussels. She'll win; but as Conservative MP Simon Hart has said, "I think it’s a really strange time to be trying to depose somebody right at the final stages of the most complicated negotiations the country’s ever been involved with."

The Guardian has more:

Downing Street has dropped a heavy hint that Theresa May would not seek to lead her party into the next general election, even if she wins Wednesday night’s confidence vote.

As May embarked on a series of face-to-face meetings with her backbench colleagues in a bid to secure their backing, a spokesman said: “She does not believe that this vote, today, is about who leads the Conservative party into the next election – it is about whether it is sensible to change the leader at this point in the Brexit process.”

In a statement outside No 10 on Wednesday morning, May vowed to fight for her colleagues’ support “with everything I’ve got” – and warned that overthrowing her could hand the keys of Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn.

“A change of leadership in the Conservative party now would put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it,” she said. “A new leader wouldn’t be in place by the 21 January legal deadline, so a leadership election risks handing control of the Brexit negotiations to opposition MPs in parliament.”

The next general election is not formally due until 2022, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act; but with MPs deadlocked over the best way forward for Brexit, the likelihood of a fresh general election is increasing.

That's one of the best things about the UK constitution, in my book: they can change governments any time they need to. That said, from my perch 6,000 km from Westminster I have even less confidence in Jeremy Corbyn than in May, which is sad because I generally support Labour over the Tories.

Someday we're going to have much more solid evidence of outside (read: Russian) interference in Western politics. Today, though, we have to deal with half the Tories and half of Labour living in alternate realities from each other and from the majority of Britons.