Tuesday 22 January 2019

Matthew Norman: Brexit outcome now essentially in the hands of one man

John Bercow. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Bercow. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Matthew Norman

It has taken almost 30 years for this American fad to cross the Atlantic, which is almost 30 years longer than the average, and there's no guarantee it will complete the journey now. But there is at least the chance that the US fashion for the government shutdown, as inaugurated in Washington back in 1980 and newly resurrected by President Doolally J Twathead, is preparing to visit.

Today in London, a cross-party coalition of select committee chairpersons, led by Labour's Yvette Cooper, will launch a coup d'etat attempt against the government on behalf of the Commons. The deceptively genteel tactic will be tabling the amendments to the Finance Bill which would remove the Treasury's special spending powers in the event of a no-deal departure that isn't approved by the Commons.

According to two members of Theresa May's inner circle, as anonymously quoted in a newspaper, this could cause "total paralysis". If that sounds remarkably like the status quo, literally total paralysis is technically far worse and scarier than the apparently total paralysis of the last two years.

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And the Boadicea of Brexit won't stop there. Cooper says her eclectic band of comrades (Hilary Benn, Sarah Wollaston, Frank Field, etc) mean to pass other safeguards wherever they can. Meanwhile, Vince Cable has tabled another amendment to prevent the Treasury raising income and corporation tax unless Brexit, of whatever variety, has parliamentary approval.

The intent of these guerilla warriors is clear. Once no deal becomes a practical impossibility, May has nothing with which to blackmail or terrorise wavering MPs into voting for her wretched deal, which she doughtily insists she will present to the Commons on January 15.

In that case, it will go down by a colossal margin. With no alternative escape route, a second referendum would be the only option - and if the latest YouGov poll is to be trusted, Remain would head off to the starting stalls as the hot favourite against any other choice on the ballot paper.

It is at this point that an unlikely saviour hovers into view. John Bercow doesn't look, sound or (if those bullying allegations are accurate; and, frankly, if they aren't) behave like a superhero. With 'Ant Man' already taken by Paul Rudd, his sobriquet would be 'Bombast' were he mystifyingly recruited by Marvel for its next generation of Avengers.

Yet this bijou high priest of narcissistic pomposity is now the most powerful person in the country. So prepare to rejoice, rejoice, you Brexity fans of reclaiming parliamentary sovereignty.

The speaker of the house has it in his hands to do just that.

The Brexit that was born and raised as an idealistic shibboleth is boiling down to a question of parliamentary procedure.

It is in Bercow's gift to grant or deny requests for the amendments that would give the House an effective veto over no deal, and more than likely facilitate a second referendum. It will also be his decision, if and when May's deal gets the clobbering it deserves, whether she can nip back to Brussels and ask the Commons to vote on an eerily similar deal with cosmetic differences.

If he decides that the specific cosmetic is the lipstick she's putting on a pig, and enforces the rule that the Commons can't be asked "substantially the same" question more than once within a session, that's that. Her deal is dead, and she can run down the clock no longer.

In his public role as speaker, however, he has been rather magnificent. Whether through reciprocal hatred of a Tory party that loathes the one-time hard-right headbanger for a traitor, or high minded reverence for the duties of his office, or a bit of both, he has held the executive to account with a rigour unknown in living memory.

Now history beckons. Faced with an insanely intransigent prime minister on one side of the house, and a leader of the opposition gone awol on the other, it is his judgments more than any other factor that will shape the UK's future.

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