The headlines missed the real Bercow story. He’s de facto implementing last week’s Benn amendment: the Commons now has the lead in deciding what get’s voted on for Brexit

by Atul Hatwal

The headlines from John Bercow’s intervention yesterday might have been about his refusal to countenance another Meaningful Vote on an unchanged deal, but the real story, was elsewhere. Two words, one number: Standing Order 24.

In his response to a question from Labour MP Helen Goodman, the Speaker virtually set out how he would support the Commons in seizing control of the parliamentary agenda, allowing binding votes on different Brexit options such as a referendum or Norway+.

Here’s the key exchange from Hansard.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are obviously right that the House does not wish to vote on the same proposition over and again. Equally, I am sure that you will be aware of the fact that some hon. Members were interested in meaningful votes because at that time, they would be able to vote on amendments on matters that we have not yet considered. If the Government are unable to make any changes to their proposition, I seek your guidance on how we might secure opportunities for voting on those alternative propositions. I heard you talk about urgent questions, but of course, there is no vote on an urgent question or a statement, and a Standing Order No. 24 motion is in neutral terms. The Government have not been very generous recently in offering Opposition day debates either, so I seek your advice on how hon. Members might proceed.

Mr Speaker

Obviously, it would be helpful to the Opposition if Opposition days were supplied. That has not happened recently and I have no way of knowing whether the Leader of the House has it in mind to provide for Opposition days. I think that colleagues would think that it was a democratic and seemly thing to do to ensure that the principal Opposition party had the requisite allocation of days. So far as other business is concerned, the hon. Lady should look closely at the Standing Order No. 24 procedure. What she says about it is true, but I think that she should reflect upon the opportunities that the Standing Order No. 24 procedure presents, because the opportunities are fuller than has traditionally been acknowledged or taken advantage of by Members of the House of Commons.

The Speaker bends over backwards to needle Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House and highlight Standing Order (SO) 24. This is the SO that enables emergency debates to be requested by MPs.

Traditionally, emergency debates are phrased neutrally. They always use the formulation, “That this House has considered…” This is because the purpose of SO24 is to enable debate, to consider a motion, not direct action following the debate.

Often there isn’t even a vote at the end of the debate, just an agreement that the issue has been considered.

On the occasions there is a vote, it is only on whether the House has considered the issue, not what to do about it. Government’s will typically vote Yes, asserting that there has been full consideration; the Opposition will vote No. But after the vote, to use a phrase dear to the prime minister’s heart, nothing will have changed.

Here’s an example from just before Christmas.

On December the 11th, Labour secured an emergency debate on Theresa May cancelling the first meaningful vote. The motion stated:

That this House has considered the Prime Minister’s unprecedented decision not to proceed with the final two days of debate and the meaningful vote, despite the House’s Order of Tuesday 4 December 2018, and her failure to allow this House to express its view on the Government’s deal or her proposed negotiating objectives, without the agreement of this House.

There was a debate and even a vote and in that vote, the government whipped it’s MPs to not vote. Parliament eh?

The result was Ayes 0, Noes 299. Hansard records that the “Question” was, “accordingly negatived.” Or in other words, the motion wasn’t sufficiently considered.

Effectively the Government took it’s bat and ball away and went home. Yes, there was a vote but zero practical outcome, even in terms of a symbolic vote that could have been tight and might have been lost by the Government.

This is why SO24 has not been previously considered as a vehicle for testing parliamentary opinion on Brexit options or holding votes to direct government action. On the former, the government could simply whip to not vote again and little would be revealed about Parliament’s preferences. On the latter, the motion is neutral so there’s no jeopardy for the government.

This is what changed yesterday.

In his response to Helen Goodman, John Bercow all but stated that he would force the Government to engage with the emergency debate process. The sole route to achieving this is to introduce real consequence to the motion. It means allowing motions that are not neutral, that bind the Government and force it to whip properly and vote down what’s proposed. Otherwise, it will have to abide by the result.

This could involve allowing amendments to a neutral motion for emergency debate, or it could involve the Speaker selecting motions under SO24 that are not neutral.

While debates under SO24 have conventionally been phrased neutrally, there’s nothing in the Standing Order that states this must be the case. The relevant sub-sections of SO24 on the criteria for what is selected for debate, by the Speaker, are quite broad,

(5) In determining whether a matter is proper to be discussed the Speaker shall have regard to the extent to which it concerns the administrative responsibilities of Ministers of the Crown or could come within the scope of ministerial action. In determining whether a matter is urgent the Speaker shall have regard to the probability of the matter being brought before the House in time by other means.

(6) The Speaker shall state whether or not he is satisfied that the matter is proper to be discussed without giving the reasons for his decision to the House.

Part of the rationale for the neutral phrasing of emergency debates under SO24 is to enable the Speaker to prevent Government amendments which could divert or prevent the debate. This power is specifically set out in SO24B

24B Amendments to motions to consider specified matters

Where, in the opinion of the Speaker or the Chair, a motion, That this House, or, as the case may be, the committee has considered the matter, is expressed in neutral terms, no amendments to it may be tabled.

However, in a House of Commons where the Government does not have the votes to enforce its will but the votes are there for substantive motions on Brexit options, John Bercow could simply select a range of these motions under SO24.

This is what he was saying he’d do, to Helen Goodman.

When he does, it will torch the Government’s business plans and give the Commons the lead in determining the future direction of Brexit.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut



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9 Responses to “The headlines missed the real Bercow story. He’s de facto implementing last week’s Benn amendment: the Commons now has the lead in deciding what get’s voted on for Brexit”

  1. Landless Peasant says:

    Clear as mud

  2. Tafia says:

    This overlooks the elephant in the room – The EU. They drive this, not Parilament. Parliament can mess about all it likes but while the date remains set in law as March 29, then that’s what it is even if Parliament pass a hundred ‘binding’ motions.

    You can bet with near-certainty that May will only be given an extension provided she agrees the EU’s terms. “Implementation, not negotiation” as Barnier put it Monday afternoon. The EU will stipulate that they will grant an extension until June 30 (to allow implementation) on the proviso our Parliament passes the deal as it is with no further tinkering or delaying or messing about by midday March 29. Anyone who then tries to slow this causes No Deal. If it doesn’t get passed as it is by March 29 we leave that night.

    Even the most ardent Remain MPs will be left with a choice, late next week, of voting for the Deal or seeing No Deal happen by default. If you were a Remain MP what would you do in those circumstances?

  3. Dave D says:

    Socialists and Blairites should avoid factional politics at this time and come together to work towards a general election. We need to form the first proper Labour government since 1945.

  4. John P Reid says:

    first 2 comments yes,

    Dave D,
    A, there’s more to the left that socialsits and Blairites I would say some of the memoentums orts aren’t socialists if they dont’ accept we couldn’t have implemented the 2017 while in the EU ,they’re liberals and their dislike of the working class being able to have a view that differs to their own ,means they want to keep us in our place

    B even if anyone who isn’t a cobrynite is a Blairite, do you think anyone who’ isn’t a Corbynite would be allowed to see the corbynites concede to their views take a lexiter would they be able to get their view heard that Momentums view the working class who voted Brexit are racist, might not be true?

  5. Tafia says:

    And as I put in the second comment above, France has announced it will veto any application to extend Article 50 unless May’s Deal is passed signed sealed and delivered by close of play Friday.

    And while Macron was announcing this what was Parliament doing? Holding a meaningless SO24 debate about what May should have put in the letter.

    Get something through your heads. Parliament is NOT the driver in this, the EU is. Parliament cannot overrule the EU. Starmer (wasting yet another afternoon as he is now) bleating about non-binding motions being ignored, and other pointless nonsense is just a joke.

    The position, as it stands, is that Parliament either accepts Mays deal by close of business next Friday in full, ready to implement in which case we MIGHT see France back down and allow an extension until late May, or we leave that night.

    And Parliament can waste as much time as it likes.

    Speaker refuses to allow Meaningful Vote? We leave next Friday at 11pm
    Parliament refuses to pass it? We leave next Friday at 11pm
    Parliament passes it ready to implement? We get a short extension until late May to implement it.

    Funniest thing is as Starmer is talking, he and Parliament are behind the curve. He’s stood there saying change the extension to a longer one to allow more talks while at exactly the same time the EU are saying there are no more talks irrespective of who is in power. And yet again, for at least the fourth time since yesterday afternoon, the EU use the phrase “Implementation NOT negotiation”.

    (By the way, this outcome was almost certainly agreed between the EU and May, in private, well over a month ago. Parliament has been stitched up by Junker and May between them and allowed to continue to think it has some say in this when it has never had it.)

    Barclay now putting Starmer in his place and reading out the EU’s position on things, followed by more hot air and pointless pontification by Benn. Carry on wasting time gentlemen.

    Now make your mind up – do you want to leave in a couple of months time with a deal or leave next friday without one. There are no other choices.

    I notice Blair has jumped ship and is saying Parliament needs to choose – leave with soft Brexit or leave with hard Brexit. Now is not the time for any second referendum – that is something for the future.

    And the EU now sinks Labour’s alternative Brexit. Not acceptable. Only deal on offer now or in future is the current one.

  6. Anne says:

    Although Blair was probably wrong about Iraq – he did manage to persuade Parliament to go along with it while Teresa May has been unable to persuade Parliament to go along with her deal – she keeps on saying the same thing over and over – it is insane. More worrying still is she appears to be preparing the ground to blame Parliament for a no deal which is entirely her responsibility.
    Lisa Nandy (one of the good ones) is trying to gather support in the Labour camp to support May’s deal – but read what she has to says regarding her communications with Teresa May.
    I feel that Corbyn let himself down by walking out of the meeting with leaders of other parties – he may not agree with TIGs but this is a crisis – all hands on deck.

  7. Tafia says:

    Anne, it isn’t May’s deal. It’s the UK/EU Withdrawal Arrangement Treaty. Most of it was dictated by the EU and May just had to accept it. And the EU are taking great offence at MPs from both camps describing something that was mostly written by them as ‘rubbish’.

    And the EU actually want this deal to pass and the UK to leave in an orderly manner, which is why they have given MPs more time to vote on it again. However I will bet my pension tthat they will waste the time trying to stick meaningless and pointless amendments on it, argue and ultimately slap the EU across the face and vote it down again.

    Our MPs have become real life versions of the Spitting Image puppets of MPs in the 1980s. Like I said at the top of the page, the EU drives this and they have given Parliament one last chance to deliver. And more fool them.

  8. John P Reid says:

    Anne, not exactly the best persuasion I’ve ever heard

  9. George says:

    This is all very well but it essentially revolves around the Speaker exceeding his recognised powers, breaking established rules and conventions, like allowing amendable unamenable motions. The trouble with doing this is that it justifies everybody else breaking the rules. You can’t gain the moral high ground by claiming that it’s fine for your side to make up the rules as you go along but not your opponent.
    Parliament has traditionally had the power to dismiss the PM but not to instruct him (because he is the Queen’s minister and that therefore would be treason against the Queen). This is a carefully balanced arrangement that dates from the Civil War, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution. If Parliament were to break this convention they would be inviting the PM simply to ignore them on the quite reasonable grounds that he has the right to go to the country, which is the traditional resolution if Parliament cannot form a working government.
    So try as Bercow, Beckett and Grieve might, I really can’t see this working. Also, one day – one hopes – Labour or some party other than the Conservatives will form a government. The existing rules will then benefit them too. Indeed many of the Labour Party’s greatest reforms would not have been possible without them. So it is a dangerous place for Labour to go to abolish these rules, the traditional impartiality of the Speaker and the checks and balances of the Westminster Parliamentary system.

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