MICHAEL WHITE: The speaker has cornered the PM

PUBLISHED: 07:00 22 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:20 22 March 2019

John Bercow in the House of Commons. Photograph: PA Wire.

John Bercow in the House of Commons. Photograph: PA Wire.

PA Wire/PA Images

Michael White on the week John Bercow added another twist to Brexit's course.

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What shocked old Westminster hands was not that Speaker Bercow ruled against Theresa May putting “substantially the same” ‘meaningful vote three’ before MPs. Or even that no one predicted he might, despite Labour’s irrepressible Chris Bryant helpfully setting out the precedents back to 1604 as recently as last Thursday and May thanking him. No, the jaw-dropper was Bercow gave No.10 no warning he was to ambush the prime minister’s strategy in such a spectacular way. Cobweb-covered precedents or not, it was a highly political step. Even from a Speaker who is a champion of parliamentary sovereignty over the executive, surprises like this aren’t meant to happen in a well-run shop.

But the British government shop is currently more Phil Green’s Debenhams than John Lewis. I back those who argue that ours has been a party political crisis more than a constitutional one. Like the nation, our major parties are split over Brexit, poorly led and strength debilitated by regional nationalist parties which include the mainly English UKIP, as well as the SNP, Plaid, Sinn Fein and the DUP.

In the best of times it would make governing harder. At home and abroad these are not the best of times, they are dangerously introverted ones. Killer storms across south east Africa? Way down the news list for days.

That said, for once the solicitor general, Robert Buckland, was entitled to call this a “constitutional crisis”, coming as it did just 11 days before Britain’s designated departure from membership of the European Union. Some ministers were furious and there was a raw exchange across the despatch box between Remain-voting Mr Speaker and Brexit enthusiast, Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons and Tory leadership aspirant.

Loyalist pique was understandable. After all, Vote Leave’s Svengali Matthew Elliott and ex-chancellor Norman Lamont seemed to be coming on board for ‘May’s deal better than no Brexit’. Flighty Esther McVey too. Cardinal Mogg himself was sounding slightly flighty. The optimism may have been misplaced again. But the pound perked up.

But what Bercow’s bombshell had done could not be undone, not right away. “Smirk that Says: Brexit Be Damned” declared the Born Again loyalist Daily Mail. Fertile minds quickly moved on in two directions. May supporters, admittedly a dwindling band, asked how Westminster’s flexible constitution conventions might be deployed to get around the latest roadblock asap. Perhaps a ‘paving motion’ or change of standing orders to clear the path for a resumption of Operation Grind Them Down. Or a quick prorogation of parliament so that MV3 could become the MV1 of the new session? Attlee did it to see off the Lords in 1949. In that impulse they were joined by the finest minds in Brussels – a relative term – who want the drama over ahead of Europe’s daunting May 23 elections without the complication of British participation. But clearly nothing could now be fixed or fiddled before this weekend’s Brussels summit where any flexibility must be unanimous, overcoming the risk of Farage-inspired vetoes by his populist pals in Warsaw or Budapest. Tick, tock. We are all in the EU27’s hands now. Get used to it. Gossip from Brussels on Wednesday suggested tough conditions for delay: a general election or a referendum? That might be counter-productive.

Rising to the challenge in a different way, other MPs, campaigners and pundits asked “what’s in it for us?” As usual with The Curse of Brexit there was little consensus on that one. Some – not all – of the no-deal core of 20 to 25 Tory MPs improbably sensed Bercow may have given a better chance of pushing their ball over the hard Brexit line on March 29 by sheer legal momentum. Unless changed, that is what the law says.

Soft Brexit pragmatists and hard Remainers saw a chance to impose a longer Article 50 extension to the Brexit process – not the quickie which May had assumed to be been planning. Three months or two years? Tuesday’s tetchy cabinet squabbled over both. Might a breather provide enough time for a serious strategic rethink of all the familiar options that MPs have voted down or not voted on at all? In no particular order, the Kyle-Wilson formula for a People’s Vote, a refinement of Sarah (TIG) Wollaston’s version, voted down by 334 to 85 last week when all but 24 Labour MPs abstained? A PV in return for Labour backing May’s plans? If so, what other option(s) would be on the ballot paper? Tory Remain resigner Philip Lee claimed mid-week that a referendum majority is closer than a majority for May’s deal.

How about a general election? But who really wants one? A change of Tory leader instead? Plenty want that. Odd that Tory activists obsessed with feeling “utterly betrayed” still favour a candidate who has specialised in betraying employers, leaders, wives and children. Few MPs believe Boris’s intransigence is anything other than calculation. Will they dare to keep the activists’ pin-up off the ‘last two’ shortlist?

Alternatively, what about retreat from May’s battered red lines towards a series of indicative votes, Hilary Benn’s option? A move towards Norway and the single market or to a customs union, which Michel Barnier reportedly wants added to the Withdrawal Agreement’s political declaration in order to entice Labour support? Might it be achieved via a successful move by MPs – defeated by just two votes last week – to take control of the process, something that has rarely occurred since 1604? People’s Vote advocates were all fired up. Anything could happen, though most of it won’t.

But decisions do not take place in a vacuum. At the weekend May was probably too busy trying to cook up that elusive deal with DUP MPs to watch much telly. So she missed Sunday night’s repeat of Sold! Inside the World’s Biggest Auction House, the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the high-end global auction market, now flogging whatever isn’t nailed down to super-rich Chinese.

Someone said “Christie’s are worried that politics will spook the art world”. Wrong, I thought, it’s the other way around. The all-too-visible rise in inequality combined with the swing of power back to Asia is what’s helped spook Western politics. When British television viewers can see a Shanghai billionaire bidding $25 million for a bit of contemporary kitsch he can’t possibly like (can he?) it channels a lot of populist resentment against just-managing-quite-nicely-thank-you cultural and economic elites. Finance capitalism, arrogant and foot-loose, has much to answer for, but precious few answers.

The Brexit with which May grapples ineffectually is just an inflamed symptom of the wider disorder. So is mass murder in distant New Zealand, pitch assaults on football players by disappointed fans and the looting of Fouquet’s, the posh Paris restaurant, by gilets jaunes. Their
weekly protests are getting less numerous, but more violent as the heavy mob senses opportunity in the spectacle of water cannon on a burning Champs Élysées.

Self-avowed Christchurch killer, B*****n T*****t, could have been among them, an angry loner with a vengeful fantasy life, perfect raw material for online hate-mongers. But when Xi’s China grounded its flawed Boeing 737 Maxes too quickly after the Ethiopian crash and the US hesitated too long to do the same, both were responding to the increasingly nationalistic public mood. When Donald Trump tweeted that planes were simpler and safer in the good old days (they weren’t) he pandered to the nostalgia of his core supporters in America’s struggling heartlands.

For all her dutiful good intentions, so unlike Trump’s glib fluency, our hesitant prime minister can’t talk to alienated people in distress, as she showed so painfully after the Grenfell Tower fire. She struggles to empathise, she can’t touch hearts or offer hope to which sceptical voters can cling. Few can in troubled times. Only the charlatans, it sometimes seems. An old friend recalls Harold Wilson explaining how important it was for the Labour cabinet’s majority to win the 1975 common market referendum because otherwise “the wrong people would be in charge”. He probably meant Tony Benn or Enoch Powell and their zealous cohorts. A few years earlier Hugh Gaitskell’s wife, Dora, listened to the then-Labour leader’s famous “1,000 years of history” speech rejecting Europe and made a similar point. She told him “the wrong people are applauding”.

Sixty years later such thoughts are hard to avoid. What rough beast slouches in the rain towards Westminster to be born? Nigel Farage, at least for the telegenic first few hours of the Brexit march from Sunderland. Don’t worry, Nigel, you didn’t actually look like a rough beast (it’s from a poem), in fact you looked wistfully aspirational in your smart squire’s cap and storm-proof Barbour, a very upmarket gilet jaune. Younger members of your modest entourage (150 at the start?) looked positively well-scrubbed, as the Jarrow Crusaders, whose Depression-era march you mimic, did not.

Harmless street politics? Not when the former UKIP leader indulges in boasting that he would “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if Brexit is “betrayed”. Farage doesn’t pay attention to what he says, they’re just words to him. A chorus of voices urged politicians to moderate language after the New Zealand atrocity, but not before Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used Christchurch footage to boost his flagging local election campaign.

An Enoch Powellite pundit of my generation predicts that Farage’s new brand – the Brexit Party – would “get 70% of the vote” if Brits were forced to stage EU elections this spring. UKIP’s new signing Tommy Yaxley-Robinson and I doubt that. In any case my hunch remains that we can’t be forced and we won’t be. I’m not even sure it would be wise of Brussels, in its own interests, to grant May a longer extension, even if the 27 all share Donald Tusk’s hope that it would deliver a referendum that Remain would (so polls say) win this time.

Brexit Britain stuck in an EU Hotel California (“you can never leave”) would become an election rallying cry for populist parties across Europe which are already poised to do well. It would make Brussels look legalistic and weaken efforts to fortify the centre against the extremes. Above all, it would further distract from the 27’s other pressing problems, notably economic enfeeblement which has already obliged the European Central Bank to reverse its decision to curb cheap credit.

So ways will be found if they have to be to square the legal circle without leaving the new Strasbourg parliament’s legitimacy open to challenge or tempting captive Brits into obstructive tactics, which the populist bloc will deploy anyway. Perhaps retiring MEPs – Farage included – will be asked to stay on temporarily. The deadline for a decision is April 11. Strasbourg seats, Irish backstop or Speaker’s ruling, where there’s a will and a Commons majority there is always a remedy, if both parties want it so. Lawyers are taxis. Precedents are servants, not masters, there to be changed, as Speaker Bercow himself remarked when he overturned one to allow a vote on Dominic Grieve’s Brexit amendment in January.

After all, the past week has seen four Remain cabinet ministers – Rudd, Gaulke, Clarke and Mundell – ignore chief whip Julian Smith’s instructions to vote down the cabinet’s own, admittedly amended, no-deal motion, while Stephen Barclay, the amiably soft-spoken Brexit secretary Mk III, wound up the debate on an Article 50 extension to June 30 by urging colleagues to use their free vote for May, then voted the other way himself.

Six cabinet colleagues, none of them big political beasts – Fox, Leadsom, Williamson, Morduant, Grayling and Truss – joined him. With collective cabinet responsibility in shreds May tore into them (and media leakers) at the post-mortem cabinet and Smith apparently stormed out. Someone else will have to restore order but – as with Labour’s parallel disarray and Jeremy Corbyn’s rumoured wish to retire – not yet. Loyalist newspapers denounced the Rudd-ites’ conduct, but strangely not Barclay’s easily avoided dishonour. He should have let someone else wind up.

Yet those EU partners tempted to mock procedural wrangles and Mr Speaker’s reference to 1604 might remind themselves of their own constitutional arrangements 400 years ago, mostly less edifying. For both better and worse, Westminster does continuity. Perhaps that explains “Order, Order” Bercow’s new-found fame among the European chattering classes as they watch our deliberations, chaotic but also magnificent representative theatre, as the Strasbourg hemicycle rarely is.

Brexit hardliner Martin Selmayr reportedly proposed a tight cut-off date of May 29 for any A50 extension, more in line with punitive French instincts than his own government in Berlin.

It tempts one to ask whether concern over Selmayr’s elevation to the lofty post of secretary-general of the European Commission by a procedural sleight of hand would have been so easily suppressed by bloody-minded British MPs as it was in Strasbourg? By the same token, France’s Michel Barnier predicts “huge political volatility” in Britain, but will he be dining in Fouquet’s restaurant soon? Kettles and pots.

So serious politicians on both sides of the Channel should resist the temptation to score popular points at home over Brexit, as some do at any opportunity. Whatever the outcome turns out to be in the next few days – months or years? – we will all still need to remain allies. Leave the cheap shots to Candidate Johnson or to John Redwood, whose FT Money column this week was headlined “Is Populism Really So Bad for Investors in Europe?” Leave it to Neil Woodford, the once legendary fund manager who thinks a no-deal Brexit will be fine. He’s not alone in that, but his under-performing flagship fund is half the £4.5 billion it was.

Woodford is relying on a post-Brexit share bounce to vindicate his strategy.

They talk of little else in Sunderland.

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