Brexit: Legal technicality could prevent vote on UK-EU deal
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s last-gasp attempt to get a Brexit deal through the UK parliament may have been dealt a deadly blow due to a technicality that dates back to 1604.
The Speaker of the House of Commons has ruled Mrs May cannot bring her deal with the European Union back to parliament potentially setting the stage for the UK to crash out of the bloc with no deal or have to ask for lengthy delay to Brexit.
The situation has been labelled a “constitutional crisis” for Britain.
The UK is due to leave the EU on Friday week. If an agreement isn’t passed by the House of Commons before then, Britain could leave with no deal and no transitionary period leading to disruption at the border and tariffs on imported goods.
Last week, MPs said no a second time, for Mrs May’s revised Brexit deal, by 149 votes. An earlier vote, in January, saw a deal defeated by 230 votes, chiefly due to the so-called Northern Irish backstop.
The backstop would come into play if the EU and UK had not agreed on a free-trade deal by the end of 2020. It would ensure there would be no visible border between the Republic of Ireland and the British territory of Northern Ireland and no goods would have to be checked.
But the price for this would be the UK abiding by the EU’s customs rules long after it had left the union — and that is a huge problem for so-called “Brexiteers” who want to be able to leave the EU and strike free trade deals with other countries.
The UK and EU’s most recent revision to that deal included additional legally binding wording to the effect that the backstop could not remain in force for the long term. But it wasn’t enough for most MPs.
The PM had been hoping to bring the deal back to parliament next week in the hope enough MPs will have mulled over the detail of the deal and now decided to back it.
But that plan is now in disarray due to a judgment by the Speaker, John Bercow.
He told Mrs May that parliamentarians would be unable to have a “third meaningful vote” if the motion was “substantially the same” as the one rejected last week.
Mr Bercow cited a parliamentary convention dating back to 1604 and reaffirmed in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. This declares that the question “may not be brought forward again during the same session” of parliament.
“One of the reasons the rule has lasted so long is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the house’s time and the proper respect for the decisions it takes,” Mr Bercow said.
He said the vote last week didn’t breach the convention because the additional text meant that it was sufficiently different to the motion proposed in January.
But the same could not be said for the likely contents of next week’s Brexit motion.
Solicitor General Robert Buckland said the decision meant there was now a “constitutional crisis” in the UK but it was up to the EU to provide a substantial enough change to the deal for it to be voted on, the BBC reported.
“Frankly we could have done without this but it is something we are going to have to deal with,” he said.
On Thursday, MPs voted to reject a no deal Brexit. However, that’s exactly what could happen on Friday March 29, the date on which the UK said it would leave the EU.
The UK could ask for a delay to the Brexit leave date but the EU wants Westminster to provide more detail on what it hopes an extension could achieve. Brussels doesn’t want to keep tinkering with the current agreement if it has no chance of being passed in London.
The other problem is the European Union elections in May. If the UK stays in the EU beyond that date it would be obligated to take part in the election despite its stated intention to leave as soon as possible.
Those who want to leave the EU are also fearful an extension could last for years rather than months and could lead to a second referendum.
The Government could attempt to circumnavigate the Speaker’s rule on another technicality.
One method would be to “prorogue” parliament. This would mean the current session of parliament is discontinued and a new session started. If that was the case the deal could indeed be voted on.
The last time that was done was in 1949. But it could involve bringing the Queen back to the chamber to reopen parliament.
Whatever happens, it’s a mess. Speaking to The Guardian, MP Tim Laughton said: “Just when it looked like order was about to finally emerge from the chaos, Bercow has fashioned a way to reassert the chaos.”
Originally published as 400yo technicality could scupper Brexit