(CN) – Nearly two years ago – on March 29, 2017 – British Prime Minister Theresa May signed the letter formally withdrawing Great Britain from the European Union. In doing so, she kicked off a two-year negotiating period to define the terms of the historic divorce.
In signing that letter, May, a Conservative, set March 29, 2019, as Brexit day – the day Britain was meant to leave the EU. That day is only 10 days away now.
Back then, on a mild-weathered Wednesday in 2017, conservative newspapers cheered. The Daily Mail, a tabloid, ran with “Freedom!” on its front page and showed a cheerful May signing the divorce letter.
Liberal newspapers, though, painted a very different picture. The front page of the Guardian was consumed by a jigsaw puzzle of a map of Europe, but with Great Britain’s pieces missing and in their place a headline read: “Today Britain steps into the unknown.”
Two years later, the reality of Brexit is both very different and very similar to what it was two years ago. Indeed, many in Britain describe feeling trapped in a version of “Groundhog Day” with Brexit arguments, speeches, news, rallies and political twists seemingly repeating over and over again with no resolution.
Now, with Brexit day fast approaching, the front pages of Britain’s newspapers simmer with the foul mood of a nation riven by Brexit anxieties, divisions and anger. Tuesday was a good example.
“A Major Constitutional Crisis,” screamed the Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper. “Brexit Chaos,” shouted the Guardian. “The Brexit Destroyer” and “B*ll*cks to Bercow” ran headlines atop the front pages of right-wing tabloids, the Daily Express and the Sun.
All these headlines were referring to the latest twist in the politics of Brexit – and this drama is scripted with classic British themes: It involves a parliamentary rule dating to 1604, the year Shakespeare’s “Othello” premiered, the concept of legal precedence, the balance of power between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government, and a colorful, witty personality named John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons.
He’s the one in the boisterous Commons who wears a black robe and sits in a throne between the two sets of opposing benches thronged by archenemies who shout at and taunt each other. It’s his job to referee the arcane proceedings, shouting “Order! Order!” when the famously riotous chamber gets out of hand and loses its pretense to gentility.
On Monday, Bercow invoked a long-standing parliamentary convention dating to 1604 that forbids a motion being presented to Parliament more than once. The rule is meant to stop a government from forcing, or bullying, an unwilling Parliament into accepting a law.
His ruling threw into disarray May’s last-ditch strategy to do just that and force Parliament into accepting a divorce deal her government spent the past two years negotiating with the EU. She’s found Parliament deadlocked over the deal, with many on the right alleging it will keep Britain, in essence, remaining an EU member while also removing Britain’s say in EU affairs.
In January and again last week, May presented her EU withdrawal agreement to Parliament. Both times, it was defeated by overwhelming majorities. The loss in January was the worst parliamentary defeat for any standing British government.
Despite the defeats, May was planning to go back to Parliament for a third, and possibly a fourth, time to see if she could get her deal passed before the March 29 deadline.
She’s been putting pressure on parliamentarians to vote for her deal or face the consequences. Chief among her threats is a warning that Brexit itself may never happen unless her deal is approved. She’s also in talks with hard-line Brexit politicians, reportedly sweetening the deal with promises.
In statements to the House of Commons, though, Bercow said the government could not keep presenting the same deal without there being “something fundamentally different” on offer.
He cited Erskine May, the official tome of parliament practice, saying it forbids introducing in the same parliamentary session “a motion or an amendment which is the same in substance.”
“This convention is very strong and of long standing, dating back to 2 April, 1604,” he told the House. He said the rule was meant “to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and the proper respect for the decisions which it takes.”
He then added that the rule had not been invoked since 1920 because it had been respected, not because it no longer applied.
He went on to outline how May’s attempts to present the deal again would violate the convention. He noted how a vote on the deal was first postponed in December once May saw it was not going to pass. He said the postponement came after 164 speeches in the House were made over three days. When the deal was brought again, the House spent five more days debating the pros and cons of the deal before it was rejected.
He said he allowed a second vote to take place only because legal changes that the EU agreed to add to the agreement made it a different deal on offer.
On Tuesday, May met with her cabinet to plot her strategy in what was reportedly an acrimonious meeting. There was talk of dissolving Parliament and calling a new session as a way around Bercow’s ruling. But that option was viewed as unfavorable because it could require involving the queen.
Experts suggested Parliament could vote to bypass Bercow’s ruling. But what precedent would that set? And what if Parliament rejected that runaround?
Meanwhile, May was set to ask the EU’s heads of state to extend the Brexit deadline. Achieving that, some speculated, might constitute the kind of change needed to be able to present the deal for a third time.
May is expected to attend a meeting of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday, both to seek new concessions and to ask for a delay of the Brexit deadline. Unless the EU grants an extension or Britain revokes Brexit, under the law Britain will leave the EU with or without a deal on March 29.
Reactions to Bercow’s ruling were mixed.
For the pro-Brexit press, and some government officials, Bercow was decried as a saboteur seeking to thwart “the will of the people.” Previously, the speaker has fended off allegations he is against Brexit after a vehicle with an anti-Brexit sticker on it was parked at his house. He assured the House the vehicle was his wife’s.
As the speaker, Bercow serves as the House’s referee and decides which motions are to be voted on. He is also an elected parliamentarian, but as the speaker he is supposed to be impartial and not affiliated with a party. He is a former Tory member, but he also said he voted against Britain’s departure from the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Thus, many Tories see him as a foe. Downing Street reportedly has considered not bestowing peerage to Bercow because of past actions perceived as hurtful to May’s government. Speakers by tradition become members of the House of Lords upon retirement.
“Just when it looked like order was about to finally emerge from the chaos, and there was real momentum building to get sufficient support to back the deal, now Bercow has fashioned a way to reassert the chaos,” Tim Loughton, a Tory member, told the Guardian.
But for those hoping to stop Brexit, Bercow became an unlikely hero and his move was viewed as a decisive one in an ongoing battle between the government and Parliament over who controls Brexit, but more profoundly democratic decisions in Britain.
“After years of petty sneers and active sabotages of parliament by the government, [Bercow] finally took his revenge,” wrote Ian Dunt, an editor of an online political magazine. “And it was huge: dramatic, constitutionally-explosive and with far-reaching repercussions for Brexit and British democracy. Once he was done, the prime minister’s strategy was in ruins.”
For politicians, Bercow’s move opened new lanes through the Brexit chaos that could help them achieve their preferred outcome.
Ian Blackford, the parliamentary leader of the Scottish National Party, said Bercow’s ruling showed the government was “trying to bully and blackmail parliament to vote for something that had the biggest defeat in parliamentary history.” He called on the government to begin talks with opposition parties to forge agreement on Brexit. His party wants Britain to remain in the EU.
But on the other side, pro-Brexit Tories reportedly see Bercow’s move as trapping May and helping their cause of seeing Britain leave the EU without a deal. Economists warn this would be catastrophic, but hard-line politicians say those fears are overblown.
“Brexit hardliners have backed the explosive ruling that has left prime minister’s plans lying in tatters today,” the Daily Mail reported. The newspaper reported Parliament members with a hard-line Brexit group “were heard whistling the ‘Great Escape’ theme tune in the Commons tea room last night in the belief Mr. Bercow’s bombshell makes their hopes of no deal more likely.”
On Wednesday morning, the headlines of London’s newspapers will surely be blazoned with Brexit anxiety again – nine days before Brexit day.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)