The role of the Speaker in parliament is to ensure legal precedents are always followed by the House of Commons, including making decisions on which debates can go forward, who can speak and generally keeping the House in Order.

In an apparently “shock” move, John Bercow has announced he will not allow a third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal if she is not able to show the deal is not “the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided.” This rule comes from the parliamentary ‘bible,’ Erskine May, to ensure the “same question” cannot be put to parliament on multiple occasions hoping for different results.

Unannounced and unhelpful

Bercow’s announcement has been seen as a surprise according to many government officials, who have argued they cannot comment on the statement due to not having been forewarned that Bercow was going to make such a ruling.

However, in an article for The Independent last week, Bercow had previously announced he would be considering whether to allow a third meaningful vote over the coming days.

Indeed, Angela Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, highlighted this “same question issue” as something which could allow the Speaker to block a third meaningful vote due to regulations disallowing government to put the same question to parliament multiple times during a single session.

According to Bercow, this rule is necessary “to ensure the sensible use of House time” and “proper respect for the decision which it takes.” He has further gained support based on his comments that by putting the same question to the House numerous times is not only a waste of time but goes against the will of parliament to continue debating on an issue which has already been closed.

Furthermore, Bercow announced in his statement that this decision wasn’t purely of his own making. He claims he had been approached by MPs on both sides of the House from Leave and Remain supporters alike who were concerned about the government being permitted to bring back the same motion, again and again, hoping for a different outcome.

His ruling is in accordance with Erskine May, which acts as a ‘bible’ for parliamentary decisions and procedures, to avoid deadlocked proposals being brought in front of the House once a decision had already been made.


Although supporters of May’s deal have argued Bercow’s statement has come at an unhelpful time, with just days to go until our leaving deadline of 29 March, supporters of both no-deal Brexit and a second referendum have expressed support of Bercow’s ruling as neither side were happy with the deal May has presented so far.

Conservative Brexit supporter, Bill Cash, claimed Bercow’s ruling made “an enormous amount of sense,” highlighting that May’s deal has already “been defeated on two separate occasions.” The most recent defeat of May’s deal was voted on 12 March, when she suffered another enormous defeat of 149 votes.

On the other side of the argument, Brexit Secretory Stephen Barclay stated a no-deal Brexit as unlikely due to the recent vote whereby “the House has already moved to take no deal off the table.” This vote was followed by another where MPs voted in favour of May writing to the EU to request an extension of Article 50, the legal mechanism by which the UK will withdraw from the European Union.

The current state of play

Part of the fury at Bercow’s ruling against May bringing back the same deal for yet another vote comes from claims that her intention was to do just that, having spent the last week rallying support from DUP and Conservative Brexiteers to vote for her deal following further “clarifications” being made regarding the controversial Irish Backstop.

Following the latest ruling, however, “clarifications” are unlikely to satisfy the requirement for “substantial changes” which Bercow has stated are required for a third vote to be allowed.

As it stands, Mrs. May will be writing to European Council President Donald Tusk to request an extension to the UK’s leaving date of 29 March.

However, this must be approved by all 27 member states in order to go ahead.

Many MPs are hoping for a short extension in order to get the required legislation in place for a smooth Brexit, and that should Mrs. May’s deal be approved then this is all that’s required, although Bercow’s ruling that “substantial” changes must be provided may mean a longer extension than ideally hoped for will be required.

In terms of the EU, it seems likely they will agree to extend Article 50, although it is clear that the European Union will want some sort of explanation as to what is hoped to be achieved during an extension. As France’s Europe Minister, Nathalie Loiseau, stated, “time is not a solution,” and a reason for the extension will be required for it to be granted.

In the meantime, there’s growing support for a people’s vote which could include the option to Remain in the EU as a potential way out of the deadlock.

What next?

Following the ruling, there are a few options which May and her government could consider to get around the “same question issue.”

Firstly, MPs could vote on whether to ignore the “same question” convention which has been in place for 400 years to protect the House’s time and decisions. Although Stephen Barclay claimed MPs must “respect the referee,” Children and Families’ Minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested the government could push to ignore Bercow’s ruling and that they “have to look at all our options” when deciding how to move forward.

According to Solicitor General Robert Buckland, this is the most likely course of action and that if enough MPs show support for a third vote, then Bercow’s ruling could be overturned.

Based on Erskine May, the same question “may not be brought forward again during the same session” of parliament. The session could be ended by suspending parliament and starting a new session. This could require a speech from the Queen, which risks putting her in an awkward position as part of the UK convention requires Her Majesty to remain apolitical insofar as is possible, and asking her to get involved in starting a new parliamentary session could be seen as allowing the Queen to provider her political opinion.

This option would also require an emergency General Election to take place, so also means that May’s government may lose control on the situation entirely should the British public choose to vote against the Conservatives at the next opportunity.

The third option would require May to obtain the “substantial changes” required to bring her deal for a legal third meaningful vote. However the EU has previously expressed disinterest in any further negotiations regarding the Brexit deal at this time, so questions remain over whether May will be able to secure a sufficiently different deal to satisfy the “same question” issue.