LONDON – The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet were gathered together on Tuesday to study the next step in the Brexit process after John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament, scuppered her plans by citing a 400-year-old guideline preventing a government from pressing lawmakers to vote repeatedly on the same policy unless it contained substantial changes.
Turning to a convention on parliamentary rules dating back to 1604, Bercow said on Monday May could not force another vote on her withdrawal bill, the product of over two years of negotiating with the European Union, unless its substance was fundamentally different to a brace of previous votes that parliament had rejected – the first by a historic majority and the second by the fourth-largest majority in Parliament’s history.
With the focus now firmly fixed on the speaker, many in the UK and overseas have questioned what exactly are the powers his office holds.
“The holder of this office is an MP (lawmaker) who has been elected to be Speaker by other Members of Parliament,” his official website said. “The Speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times. The Speaker also represents the Commons to the monarch, the Lords and other authorities.”
His intervention, which must be abided by, has now made it more likely than ever that May, whose own party is split on her deal, will have to seek an extension to the Brexit negotiation period, which had been slated to end on March 29, setting the foundations for talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
Among the speaker’s responsibilities are chairing debates and maintaining order in the Commons, always maintaining impartiality.
He must also ensure that the PM, ministers and MPs are heard when they deliver their arguments and speeches.
Should fellow members fail to show respect in that regard, the speaker will call for order and has the power to eject unruly lawmakers.
As the Brexit debate intensified and caught the interest of a more international audience, Bercow, in particular, became well-known for his own rendition of: “Order, order.”
During a debate, MPs will stand up should they wish to opine on a matter, which is known as catching the speaker’s eye.
The speaker then has the authority to choose who can intervene next and can order MPs to withdraw comments deemed to be offensive.
Once elected, the speaker must resign from any previous political party or career and remain apart from House politics even after retirement.
However, the speaker still represents a constituency and attends to their constituents’ needs, much like any other MP.
A former member of the Conservative Party, Bercow still represents his Buckingham constituency.
MPs elect the speaker in a secret ballot and a candidate must secure 50 percent of the vote outright to secure the job, otherwise, MPs will repeat the process of eliminating candidates until one person gains the majority vote.
Bercow was elected in 2009 when his predecessor, Michael Martin, resigned.
On Monday, Bercow cited the Erskine May parliamentary authority to rebut the PM’s planned third vote on her Brexit deal.
The authority Bercow used was “A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament” first published in 1844 and compiled from the House’s historic archives by 19th-century constitutional theorist May.
The tome has become known as “Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice” or simply the book of procedural rules in the House of Commons.
Bercow’s decision, although not political, halted May’s plans to force a third vote on the Brexit deal.
It has been backed by pro-Brexit supporters who believe it will lead to a hard break with the EU and also by Remain supporters who believe a prolongation of negotiations will lead to a softer Brexit or none at all.
Finding a parliamentary majority has proved elusive for May’s minority Conservative Party government, which has struggled to get pro-Brexit MPs and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, its confidence and supply, on board.
The Commons is the final obstacle for the deal.