U.K. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow dealt a major blow to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy by effectively banning her from bringing her deal back to Parliament for a third time, unless it changes significantly.
The surprise move makes it more likely that the U.K. will have to seek an extension to its European Union membership, potentially giving time to May’s opponents to force a rethink of the divorce.
Bercow set a new test for the prime minister to meet if she wants to ask Parliament to vote again on the agreement she spent two years negotiating with the EU. The deal must be “fundamentally different,” he said, and “in all likelihood” that means something new must be agreed with the bloc.
The problem for May is that negotiations have finished and time has almost run out before the U.K. is due to leave the bloc on March 29. The pound fell as Bercow spoke, before paring losses.
May had been working to put her deal back to Parliament for approval by March 20, with a vote penciled in for Tuesday. Bercow’s ruling damages May’s chances of getting it approved on this timescale, and perhaps at all.
The premier will head to Brussels for a summit on Thursday and now seems likely to have to ask EU leaders to give her an extension to the deadline, potentially lasting many months, or even more than a year.
One EU official said leaders would be reluctant to hash out a new agreement at the summit, as matters are usually wrapped up by more junior officials beforehand. That means an extension is the most likely outcome, he said. While the EU has ruled out reopening the divorce deal itself, he said the bloc could consider changes to the separate agreement that sets out future ties.
In his statement, Bercow invoked the rule — dating back to 1604 — that the same motion cannot be put to a vote repeatedly. “It is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and the proper respect for the decisions which it takes. Decisions of the House matter,” he said. “They have weight. In many cases they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents.”
May’s deal was first rejected on Jan. 15 by a record 230 votes. She then reopened talks with the EU to secure further legal assurances on how the Irish border backstop guarantee would work. The premier then put the revised deal to another vote on March 12, when it was rejected by 149 votes.
Bercow said he allowed the Commons to vote for a second time on May’s deal because it was a substantially different proposal, with new legal texts for MPs to consider. They have reached their decision on it, he said, suggesting that even a new legal opinion from the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would not be enough to allow another vote if the deal itself is unchanged.
“What the government cannot do is to resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week which was rejected by 149 votes,” Bercow said. “This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject. It is simply meant to indicate the test that the government must meet in order for me to rule that a third ‘meaningful vote’ can legitimately be held in this parliamentary session.”
May’s office didn’t immediately respond to the speaker’s ruling and her team are considering its implications, James Slack, the prime minister’s spokesman, told reporters.
“The speaker did not forewarn us of the content of his statement, or the fact that he was making one,” Slack said.