LONDON—Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans were thrown into further turmoil on March 18 when the speaker of Parliament ruled that she could not put her divorce deal to a new vote unless it was re-submitted in a fundamentally different form.
In comments that blindsided May’s office, Speaker John Bercow said the government could not bring forward proposals for a vote in Parliament that were substantially the same as had already been defeated twice before, in January and on March 12.
The ruling put Britain on a knife edge—Brexiteers seeking a complete break from the European Union saw a “no-deal” exit as now more likely while others thought May might put off Brexit beyond the set March 29 departure date, if the EU approves.
According to precedents stretching back to 1604, parliamentary rules state that substantially similar proposals cannot be voted on in the House of Commons more than once during the same session of Parliament.
Bercow said his ruling should not be considered his last word and the government could bring forward a new proposition that was not the same as that already voted upon.
“This is my conclusion: If the government wishes to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same, nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the house on the 12th of March, this would be entirely in order,” Bercow said.
“What the government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the House [of Commons] the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week which was rejected by 149 votes,” he said.
The ruling was welcomed by euroskeptic lawmakers in May’s Conservative party who have rejected her deal because the speaker’s move seemed to increase the likelihood of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
May’s withdrawal deal negotiated with the EU in 2018 was seen by Brexiteers as leaving Britain too closely aligned to the EU while depriving it of voting rights in the bloc.
“May I say how delighted I am that you have decided to follow precedent, which is something I am greatly in favor of,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of euroskeptics in the House of Commons.
Bercow’s pronouncement appeared to take May’s Downing Street office by surprise.
May’s spokesman said her office had not been warned the statement was coming. Nor could Downing Street say anything about plans for a new Brexit vote or when it might be held.
“Now the government will have to come back with substantial changes (which is literally impossible) in relation to the deal, otherwise it means a prolonged Brexit delay,” said Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at retail broker Think Forex.
EU leaders have ruled out renegotiating the exit deal.
“The chances of the UK crashing out of the EU have increased once again because the EU needs a clear plan and a strategy before they grant an extension,” Aslam added.
Earlier in the day, it had appeared that May was winning support for her deal from erstwhile opponents but Bercow’s decision will leave the prime minister scrambling for options.
Asked by a lawmaker whether further changes to the deal itself would be needed, Bercow said, “in all likelihood, the answer … is yes,” adding that a change in opinion would not constitute a change in the deal on offer.
“Fundamentally, for something to be different, it has to be by definition, fundamentally different. Not different in terms of wording, but difference in terms of substance and this is in the context of a negotiation with others outside the United Kingdom,” Bercow said.
By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan