If you’re following the news about Brexit at the moment, you’ll have come across John Bercow. This is what he had to say on March 18thh:
So, what does the Speaker do and why is this so important?
The Speaker of the House of Commons (which ishis full title, shortened to the Speaker) the one who calls ‘Order’ and thinks of various ways to get people to behave ‘properly’.
The House of Commons is the group of elected Members of Parliament, representing 9 parties. John Bercow keeps order during debates and calls MPs to speak.
John Bercow is himself also an MP, elected to be Speaker by the other MPs in June 2009.
The Speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times. That means he cannot have, share or influence political opinions. So, on election the new Speaker must resign from their political party. They remain separate from political issues even in retirement.
The Speaker also represents the Commons to the monarch (which is the Queen for now), the Lords and other authorities and chairs the House of Commons Commission. He’s the one in charge of the business of parliament.
The Speaker at work in the House of Commons
The Speaker is best known as the person who keeps order and calls the 650 MPs to speak during Commons debates. The Speaker calls MPs in turn to give their opinion on an issue. MPs signal that they want to speak by standing up from their seat (this is known as ‘catching the Speaker’s eye’) or they can notify the Speaker in advance by writing.
Being Britain, there is an element of show in the role. The Speaker has to be respected for their toughness, but also for the way in which they solve problems. So, humour, quirky language and unexpected comments can make the process a lot easier.
The Speaker has full authority to make sure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. This can mean:
- directing an MP to withdraw remarks if, for example, they use abusive language. There is a list of terms which MPs cannot use
- suspending the sitting of the House due to serious disorder
- suspending MPs who are deliberately disobedient – known as naming
- asking MPs to be quiet so other Members can be heard
The Speaker as the chief officer of parliamentary procedure
The Speaker also has to do the following:
- make sure that parliamentary procedure is followed. The Speaker refers to Erskine May for this. This book about parliamentary practise was first published in 1844. The 25th edition will be published in May 2019.
- during important debates he selects the amendments (=changes) to be debated. This is one of the reasons that his role is so important at the moment.
The Speaker and the Brexit debate
The Speaker has had a very important role to play during Brexit. That’s because the government has been unable to find a solution, the House has been split on what to do, so procedure has become even more important. The choice of which amendments to debate can influence what choices can be made and in which order.
Commentators are describing the situation in the UK as a constitutional crisis. Usually parties vote along party lines (that’s called ‘the party whip’), but now votes have been happening in all directions. At the moment you cannot say which party votes for what, except the central parties who don’t want Brexit.
So where are we now?
There are now 10 days left to March 29th 2019, which is officially the day that Britain leaves the EU. John Bercow has ruled out the option of debating Theresa May’s deal for a third time during this session of parliament. This is against parliamentary procedure. So, what are the options now?
- Hard Brexit. If there is no extension to Article 50 agreed by the EU before March 29th, this is a real possibility.
- Prorogation of parliament. This is an option to close this session of parliament and reopen it (=proroguing parliament), so the vote could take place (in a new session). There is no certainty what would then happen in a vote.
- Extension of Article 50. This will have to be agreed by the EU. In this case, here are some of the consequences and options:
- Second Referendum. Putting the deal and/or other options to a general vote.
- Renegotiation of Theresa May’s Deal (again!)
- Hard Brexit (this is seen as becoming increasingly less likely if Article 50 is extended)
- Extending Article 50 means Britain would take part in the European Elections during the summer. The voting here could well be seen as an unofficial second referendum. This is one of the reasons why Theresa May didn’t want the extension to article 50.
Over to you
What do you think will happen next? Or should happen next?