foreign interests

U.K.’s Brexit Meltdown Morphs Into a ‘Major Constitutional Crisis’

Pro-Brexit activists march outside Parliament on February 27, 2019. Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

With a week and a half to go before the U.K. is scheduled to withdraw from the European Union with or without a deal, Prime Minister Theresa May still has not secured Parliament’s approval of the agreement she negotiated with Brussels over the past two years. Now, after a surprise ruling by the speaker of Parliament, she may not even get another chance to ask.

John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, threw the government a curveball on Monday when he announced that May could not put the negotiated deal to another vote in its current form. The Commons rejected it first in January, by 230 votes, and again last week, by the smaller but still massive margin of 150 votes. Her plan, as it has been for the past several months, was to keep whipping support for her deal with help from the looming threat of the March 29 deadline and hold another vote this week. Bercow’s ruling likely puts an end to that plan.

Citing the U.K.’s 19th-century guide to parliamentary procedure and precedent dating back to 1604, Bercow noted that the legislature’s rules prohibit it from voting twice on the same or fundamentally similar proposals twice in the same session. The speaker said it was not his final word on the matter and that the government was welcome to reintroduce a Brexit deal proposal — as long as it is substantially different from the ones already voted on (he had judged the January and March versions of the deal sufficiently different to allow a second vote).

Ten Downing Street said it had gotten no advance warning of Bercow’s statement, which also shocked MPs. Some legislators expressed outrage at the speaker’s decision, but hard-line Brexiteers, who would rather have no deal than May’s deal, were pleased, as it would seem to make their preferred outcome more likely and bury a proposal they despise.

Solicitor General Robert Buckland described the situation as a “constitutional crisis,” noting that one possible way around Bercow’s demand would be to end the current session of Parliament early, start a new session next week, and hold the vote then. Such a drastic measure would almost surely be followed by calls for a general election. MPs could also conceivably hold a procedural vote to waive the rule for this one vote.

The chances of May actually coming up up with a substantially different version of the deal are roughly nil, as the E.U. leaders have repeatedly stressed that the only deal they are willing to make is the one on the table. Parliament, however, remains intractably deadlocked over the deal’s backstop solution for preventing the reestablishment of a hard border in Ireland. Proponents of a hard Brexit say the backstop could leave the U.K. stuck in a customs union with the E.U. indefinitely, which would undercut the whole point of leaving the bloc. The government has considered trying to placate the Brexiteers by adopting novel legal theories based on Article 62 of the Vienna Convention and claiming a right to cancel the backstop arrangement unilaterally under certain conditions. Bercow, however, added that changes in an “opinion” would not be enough of a difference to justify voting on the deal again, closing off that escape route.

The tumultuous Brexit process has already raised serious constitutional questions for the British government and strained the balance of power between its executive and legislative branches. Whether out of ambition or necessity, Bercow has expanded his role as speaker from an impartial referee to a legislative leader, wielding the Parliament’s arcane rules to constrain the government’s policy-making power. Under the House of Commons’ rules, the speaker renounces his party affiliation upon appointment, does not cast votes, and is meant to serve as a nonpartisan presiding officer. Brexiteers have accused Bercow, formerly a member of May’s Conservative Party, of abusing his office and violating that code of impartiality to undermine Brexit.

Bercow is hardly the only person standing in the way of May’s deal, however. Had he not decided to put the kibosh on bringing her deal to the floor again this week, its chances were already shaky. May had already confirmed that she would not put the deal to another vote without first making sure it had the backing of her Northern Irish coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, plus a critical mass of recalcitrant Tories, some of whom have said they’d back her deal to avoid a lengthy delay in Brexit. Still, the number of minds she needs to change to get to a majority at this late date is staggering. Eurosceptics in her party, negotiating from a position of extreme leverage, have begun issuing ultimatums, saying they will only vote for the deal if she first sets a date for her resignation and threatening “vote strikes” if Brexit is delayed by more than a year.

No matter what, May will request a delay in the Brexit deadline when she meets with E.U. leaders at the European Council summit this Thursday. The question is, for how long: If she has Parliament’s approval of her deal in hand by then, the plan is to ask for just three months to wrap things up. If not, she is expected to request a longer extension (nine months, according to one anonymous cabinet member). Her case to holdout MPs, which she reiterated in an op-ed in the Telegraph on Sunday, is that if they don’t back her deal now, the U.K. could end up crashing out of the E.U., or Brexit could be delayed, subject to a second referendum, or possibly never happen at all. It’s the only card she has left, but Bercow just made it harder to play.

Any delay would require the unanimous consent of the other 27 E.U. countries. The government expects the E.U. to decide at the summit whether to grant the request, but senior E.U. diplomats said they might not make a decision right away, especially if Parliament hasn’t held a third vote on the deal. Meanwhile, European governments aren’t all sold on the idea of granting an extension at all. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff said on Monday that the whole notion of granting an extension was not uncontroversial among the E.U. member states, particularly since it would mean the U.K. participating in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May. While European Council president Donald Tusk is advocating the longest possible delay and trying to whip up support for that in European capitals this week, there’s no guarantee that he will succeed.

Amid this last-minute drama, new polls show that the small majority of U.K. citizens who now favor remaining in the E.U. is growing, while the public also supports a vote on whether to leave with no deal or remain in the union after all, but would not want a verbatim repeat of the 2016 referendum. Those who still want to leave are split between preferring to leave with a deal or without one. With those numbers in mind, some British Europhiles cheered Bercow’s ruling as improving the odds of a delay and a second vote in which Remain prevails — even as the hard Brexiteers relish the thought of it catalyzing a no-deal Brexit.

Parliament also voted last week to rule out the no-deal option, but it’s not entirely in their power to prevent it. If a deal is not finalized by next Friday (or by whatever new deadline the E.U. agrees to), the only way to prevent the country from crashing out of the E.U. is for the government to take the politically cataclysmic step of unilaterally canceling Brexit.

The chances of the U.K. eventually coming to such a fork in the road, between no deal and no Brexit, are hardly remote. Even if May does manage to push her deal through, it would only start the clock on a transition period and another round of negotiations over the same irresoluble final-status issues the parties couldn’t agree on during the past two years of talks. Throughout this ordeal, the bulk of the U.K.’s political class has been avoiding hard decisions and honest reckoning with the public about what Brexit really means. Even if they aren’t forced to face reality this month, it will — eventually, inevitably — catch up to them.

U.K.’s Brexit Meltdown Morphs Into a ‘Constitutional Crisis’