Bercow’s surprise Brexit intervention a fresh blow to Theresa May

Speaker says PM cannot bring back deal to parliament without substantial changes

John Bercow addressing MPs in the House of Commons, on Monday. The speaker didn’t alert the government to his statement in advance and Downing Street was clearly nonplussed. Photograph: PA Wire

John Bercow addressing MPs in the House of Commons, on Monday. The speaker didn’t alert the government to his statement in advance and Downing Street was clearly nonplussed. Photograph: PA Wire

 

The prospect of a vote this week on Theresa May’s Brexit deal was already receding before Commons speaker John Bercow delivered his dramatic statement to the House on Monday afternoon.

Although negotiations with the DUP appeared to be going reasonably well, the prime minister’s efforts to persuade Brexiteers to back her deal seemed to have stalled.

Bercow didn’t alert the government to his statement in advance, much less what he was about to say, and Downing Street was clearly nonplussed.

Although the speaker said May’s Brexit deal could not be put to a vote if it was substantially the same as the proposition MPs rejected last week, he was imprecise about what might constitute a substantial change.

Lifeline

Downing Street acknowledges that the deal itself cannot be changed and the concessions the prime minister secured in Strasbourg last week were the last the EU will offer.

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The negotiations with the DUP could offer a lifeline, however, in the form of a promise to put into legislation a promise that if the backstop requires Northern Ireland to adopt new EU regulations the rest of the UK will follow suit.

If May attempts to put her deal to a vote next week, the addition of that promise to the DUP could help her to make the case that MPs would not be voting on the same proposition as they did last week.

Extension

So too could the conditions attached to an extension of Britain’s membership of the EU beyond March 29th.

Before Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels, May will write to European Council president Donald Tusk requesting an extension to the article 50 deadline.

Although all 27 other EU leaders must agree unanimously to an extension, they cannot impose conditions on it. This is because the European Council cannot legislate and because if Britain remains in the EU beyond March 29th, it will enjoy all the rights of a member state.

So Britain will volunteer to abide by certain conditions, including staying out of discussions about the future of the EU and the next multi-annual budget and promising not to obstruct EU business.

Official

Then the EU can agree to offer an extension of up to nine months, with EU leaders sketching it out at the summit and making it official in a simplified written procedure next week.

If Bercow allows a vote and MPs approve May’s deal next week, Britain can leave the EU as soon as it is ready. If it is staying in the EU for more than a few weeks, Britain will have to hold European Parliament elections towards the end of May.

To do so, May’s government will have to set the ball rolling by April 11th, yet another deadline on the long, unpredictable road to Brexit.

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