We must keep faith with our promise to voters that we would leave the EU now

Tying the UK to the EU’s single market and customs union with Labour votes would devastate trust in the Government and in politics more broadly. 58% of the population, who expected control of the UK’s law making to be returned to the UK when we leave the EU according to an Ipsos-MORI poll this week, […]

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Tying the UK to the EU’s single market and customs union with Labour votes would devastate trust in the Government and in politics more broadly. 58% of the population, who expected control of the UK’s law making to be returned to the UK when we leave the EU according to an Ipsos-MORI poll this week, would find their politicians had failed to deliver it.

Conservative voters would find their Government which stood on a General Election manifesto of leaving the single market and customs union had connived with the man they had demonised to deliver the exact opposite. Labour voters would question why their representatives had gone against their manifesto to help a government to which they are normally opposed.

The course of European politics over recent years has shown that such loss of trust in mainstream parties has allowed other types of politics to replace them. I want the Conservative Party to be a broad church and to have a constructive and balanced relationship with the EU and its European member states, but also to be a party that is trusted and successful. That is why I have been so keen to point out the dangers of the Government’s current course which in my belief really risks its reputation in these matters, and to get us pointed in the right direction.

It is worth therefore drilling into the detail of what is meant, and what are the practical and technical consequences, of the well worn phrases we have heard so much in rhetorical debate over the last three years, especially in advance seemingly of yet more votes on them.

Just as the EEA “single market” agreement was conceived as an ante-room for European community membership for the EFTA countries, Turkey’s “customs union” with the EU was established as part of its pre-accession integration process.

Comment on the EU’s regulations in the EEA’s case, and the EU’s tariffs and preferential trade access to their market in Turkey’s case, may be allowed, but they have no practical way to avoid adopting the rules in these matters which in the end the EU makes for them.

The EU and EEA countries have no appetite to reform these processes in a liberalising direction to accommodate the UK’s wishes were it to have similar arrangements, or indeed to make a special case of the UK. Free movement of people, and rules made by others even if inappropriate, for example for our world leading financial centre in the City of London, would not be things we could resist.

Yet at least in extremis the EEA countries and Turkey could leave those arrangements with notice. The UK would not be allowed to leave such arrangements without falling into a “backstop” for Northern Ireland or the whole UK however, because these arrangements for the UK would not be allowed by the EU without signing up to the permanent Northern Ireland backstop element of the Withdrawal Agreement. EU officials would have achieved their aim of making Northern Ireland the “price” for the UK leaving the EU, even in name only.

EEA and customs union arrangements in any case moreover do not make for “frictionless trade”. The CBI mantra about them which sounds nice and which Remain supporting Cabinet ministers have allowed to be drilled into their heads, is misleading. EEA and or customs union still require border formalities of export declarations, and in the customs union case additional physical movement certificates to prove origin or duty paid on all consignments.

The UK if it implements the Withdrawal Agreement will have agreed that in the “backstop” these physical movement certificates to administer its customs union would be required on every transaction between Great Britain and the EU, and Great Britain and Northern Ireland – perhaps 200 million a year.

In contrast, a free trade agreement such as that offered the UK by Donald Tusk last March, and an agreement to ease administrative processes for trade such as that suggested in our Alternative Arrangements Working Group, could be at least as effectively “frictionless”, would be a normal balanced relationship between jurisdictions with independence of action, and would not prejudice the constitutional integrity of our union or stability of relations in the island of Ireland.

Let’s therefore not do something the people of the UK on both sides of politics would regard as a defeat, the likes of which had never been seen in peace time.

Let’s instead offer a balanced, independent relationship of free trade, cooperation and respect for each other’s citizens, with standstill arrangements to allow more time for each side to prepare should the EU want them, but be prepared to negotiate this from outside the EU.

Dedicated civil servants on both sides of the Channel have in fact applied huge resource to readiness and most businesses have made their plans and prepared, as the Bank of England highlighted this week. We should redouble our efforts to help people transition quickly to new processes, especially those whom the messages have not reached, and support them through any short term disruption.  

But we must keep faith with those we promised we would leave the EU now. The future opportunities of the freedom we will gain by doing so are real. But we must seize them now, when countries around the world are lining up to help with them, and not let them slip out if our hands.

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The price May is paying for survival is powerlessness

She yesterday achieved the outcome most likely to prop her up – at least for the time being. But Cooper, Letwin and Bercow are waiting in the wings.

Theresa May succeeded yesterday in achieving her aim.  Of the three Brexit outcomes that could have emerged from the EU summit, she has gained the one most likely to meet her core objective – survival as Prime Minister, at least for the moment.  There is not enough time to hold a leadership election before April 12, the deadline now agreed if her deal hasn’t passed the Commons by then.  And there is no sure alternative means of finding a replacement.  A short extension best suits her abiding preoccupation: to hang on.

Of the other two possible outcomes, a long extension would have opened up the time and space for a leadership challenge.  No Deal might have kept her in office for the time being, since the response from her Ministers and Conservative could have been: all hands to the pumps.  But it might not have done – since it would also have created that space and time.  Furthermore, it could have sparked Ministerial resignations, defections to the Independent Group, and a perilous confidence vote.

In a strange kind of way, one can’t help admiring May’s ducking and diving, her evasions, her twists and turns, her deflections, her gnomic silences – the sheer inventiveness and tenacity with which she hangs on. Sometimes, she has threatened no Brexit.  At other times, such as earlier this week, she has threatened No Deal.  On Wednesday, she hurled a bucketful of verbal paraffin over just about every other MP in the House – including her own Parliamentary Party.  Late yesterday, she sought to sponge the oil from their hair and enraged faces, offering words as close to an apology as she is probably capable of speaking.

She has promised that Britain would leave the EU on March 29 over a hundred times.  She has led Tory MPs into the lobbies to vote in principle not to do so.  She has U-turned on a general election in 2017, transition migration, transition extension, putting her deal to the Commons in December, a regulatory border in the Irish Sea: we cannot bear to replicate the list in full.  Her latest about-turn, characteristically implied rather than asserted, is that we may now participate in this spring’s European elections, after all.

So evasive have been her dealings, so profuse her positions, that she was bound sooner or later to stumble across one that would work.  So it proved yesterday.  Like the majority of Conservative MPs, like the National Convention, and like the local Associations which have lined up behind the last, we have always argued that one has to be prepared to walk away from a negotiation to get a result.  The threat of No Deal should always remain on the table.

We believe that May was bluffing when she hinted earlier this week that she was prepared to countenance Britain leaving the EU with No Deal on the date still written into law.  In her elliptical way, she has pushed the idea at pro-Brexit Ministers.  She did the same to EU27 leaders yesterday.  Some of them may not have believed her.  But she seems to have sowed enough doubt to get them collectively to back off.  Emmanuel Macron didn’t veto extension.  (Neither, please note, did Viktor Orban or Matteo Salvini.)

How much more would have been achieved had she played that card at the right time and place – in other words, right at the start of the negotiation!  If Philip Hammond had been moved in the botched 2018 shuffle, as we urged just before it took place.  If a Minister for No Deal had been appointed then (ditto).  If preparations had been ramped up.  That lost chance is a tragedy with a double edge.  For May has not only threatened No Deal late in the day, but is unlikely to be able to do so again.

This is because her tactical win is wrapped in a strategic defeat.  As we write, an extension motion will presumably pass the Commons, perhaps with predominate Labour support.  But her deal is in no position to do so at a third attempt, assuming that the Speaker allows it to be put in the first place.  If it can’t win next week, it won’t be put: that surely is the logic of setting a new deadline, if it doesn’t pass, to April 12.  On paper, the option of No Deal will still exist then.  In practice, it is likely soon to be suffocated.

For with little likelihood of the deal passing; with infuriated Remainers, distrustful Leavers, an alienated Whips Office, and a Chairman of the 1922 Committe who has reportedly told May to go, she is Prime Minister In Name Only.  Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin are ready for a third bite of the cherry.  Their bid to take over the negotiation, in effect, failed in January by 23 votes.  A revived push at it from Hilary Benn fell last week by only two. It is very hard to believe that it will not be successful in some form a third time. The motion to revive it is already tabled.

The Speaker will ensure that it gets a fair wind. (His latest commitment to precedent is to revolutionise S024 motions – or so it appears.) The Second Referendum lobby is dropping its pretence of wanting a further vote, and is gradually revealing what has been its real aim all along: revocation.  Letwin/Cooper are more likely to steer MPs towards Customs Union membership and perhaps Single Market membership, too.  The House may not have settled on either by April 12.  But the Commons would then surely vote for another extension.

On second and final thoughts, we apologise for offering certainties, or seeming to.  Anything could happen yet.  Pro-Remain Ministers could quit.  So could Leave Ministers.  The ERG could go on strike, and refuse to vote.  The Whips’ Office could give up any attempt to stop them. Leadership candidates are raising money, announcing teams.  No Deal could somehow slip through the cracks.  But the drift is unmistakable.  May endures.  But the price she is paying for survival is powerlessness.

WATCH: Bercow implores MPs to “raise the level” of debate… then orders Leadsom to sit down

The Speaker offers a distillation of his signature style.

Now is the moment for Brexiteers in Parliament to stay true and be brave

John Bercow certainly knows how to hog the limelight. The man who drones on and on, lecturing MPs about brevity, was at his grandstanding best in the House of Commons on Monday. But for once, I agree with him. It is wrong for the Government to keep asking MPs the same question in the hope […]

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John Bercow certainly knows how to hog the limelight. The man who drones on and on, lecturing MPs about brevity, was at his grandstanding best in the House of Commons on Monday. But for once, I agree with him. It is wrong for the Government to keep asking MPs the same question in the hope that enough of them will cave in under pressure. Just because the EU deploys the same tactic to deal with recalcitrant voters who have the audacity to vote “the wrong way”, it doesn’t mean that the Prime Minister should be allowed to get away with it.

Thankfully, Bercow’s intervention has spared us all another meaningful vote this week, and although I am sure it was not the Speaker’s intention to help Brexiteers in Parliament in any way, it might just work in our favour.

I have to say that I am disappointed with some of my fellow Brexiteers – many of them personal friends – who have decided to back Theresa May’s deal at this stage in the negotiations. They have their reasons, and I don’t doubt their commitment to the cause. No-one can say that Philip Davies is anything but a committed Brexiteer, and if anyone starts questioning that commitment, I will defend him. No, the reason why I am disappointed is because I feel that their tactics are wrong.

Theresa May has written her letter and is today going cap in hand to Brussels asking for an extension to Article 50 at the European Council meeting. Britain is in crisis, so she says – said as if she is an innocent bystander, not a protagonist of a deal that has been overwhelmingly rejected by MPs and is deeply unpopular with the majority of UK voters.

If she has any sense, she will say that the Speaker of the House of Commons has tied her hands; that she doesn’t stand a chance of getting the current deal through Parliament because he won’t allow her to. “If you want us to leave more or less on time (after a short technical extension), you had better give me something meaningful, otherwise there won’t be another meaningful vote”, she should say. She could use it as negotiating leverage.

The EU doesn’t want a no-deal Brexit which – despite how MPs voted last week – is still the legal default position in just eight days’ time. It doesn’t want a long extension to Article 50 either. It has offered us a truly awful deal that it wants MPs to approve. The EU has to contend with elections this year which are bound to increase the number of eurosceptic populist MEPs. It doesn’t want more of them from the UK. A new Commission has to bed in and doesn’t want to have to continue Withdrawal Agreement negotiations with the UK. It is far better to give some more concessions that will command majority support in the House of Commons (knowing that it still has by far the best part of the deal) than to allow negotiations to keep dragging on.

So please, Brexiteers in Parliament, stay true and be brave. I know that you are facing pressure left, right and centre. The whips are on your back; retired politicians are busy writing op-eds telling you to cave in; newspaper editorials are urging the same; and one of your number, Andrew Percy, the co-chairman of the misnomer that is the Brexit Delivery Group, has accused you of idiocy for holding out. Don’t listen to them. You know that this deal is awful. You know that it is the worst kind of Brexit in name only. Like me, you are probably resigned to not getting the Brexit that you want. You know that you will have to compromise, but you shouldn’t compromise until the second you have to.

MPs will vote again on Theresa May’s deal next week after the EU has made some tweaks, despite what Bercow said on Monday. The Government will get around it with another one or two pieces of paper from the EU. If it is still a bad deal, they should vote it down. Watch the EU stop the clock on 29th March if it has to, and watch them make more concessions. Please remember that the EU has invested an enormous amount of time and effort into these negotiations, too. Theresa May doesn’t want to throw away more than two years of work, but neither does Michel Barnier.

It has to be made clear that the implementation period must be time limited and there must be alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop for the deal to go through. It still won’t be my kind of Brexit, and it still may be a poor deal, but it will be much better than it is now. Importantly, we won’t be trapped.

Now is not the time to give in. There may be just eight days to go, but these negotiations are far from over. Now is the time to fight harder than ever before.

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Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: May like Cromwell is losing patience with Parliament

The Prime Minister seemed to imply that if MPs will not bend to her will, she is off.

“This House has indulged itself on Europe for too long.” So said Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions.

She sounded like Oliver Cromwell dismissing the Rump Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately.”

Is this high-handed attitude towards the Commons the way to induce it to vote for her deal? Or will the Prime Minister just sound demagogic and dictatorial?

Clement Attlee said referendums were “a device of dictators and demagogues”, a view later quoted with approval by Margaret Thatcher.

Yet May now derives her legitimacy from the referendum result. She says the people who voted No in that referendum “deserve better than this House has given them so far”.

But whose task is it to bring the views of the House into harmony with those of the people as expressed in the referendum?

This is the Prime Minister’s task. She called a general election in order to obtain a House of Commons which would strengthen her hand in the negotiations required to bring about Brexit.

She instead managed to lose the slim majority her predecessor had won in 2015. The voters declined her invitation to turn her into an elected dictator. Her task became harder instead of easier.

And the Conservative Eurosceptics did not today accept her claim to be the true voice of the British people. Peter Bone reminded her that she had said 108 times that Britain will leave the EU on 29th March, and went on: “If you continue to apply for an extension of Article 50 you will be betraying the British people.”

On the other side of the argument, Kenneth Clarke, Oliver Letwin, Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper were among those who demanded that the Commons be allowed to hold a series of indicative votes, in order to show what kind of deal can command a majority.

The Prime Minister looked isolated. Her accusation that the House has “indulged itself” struck a puritanical note. She, like Cromwell, is in the right, and is fed up with MPs who waste their time arguing about things.

It was almost as if she had given up trying to persuade anyone else, and just wanted to demonstrate to her own satisfaction that she is justified.

The House is perturbed and confused, and looked in no mood to follow May’s lead. It might yet come to the view that the Prime Minister has indulged herself on Europe for too long.

Either you do as I say, or I’m off. That was the self-righteous implication of her remarks, and of her letter today to Donald Tusk. And one wondered how many MPs will treat this as an incentive to do as she says.

Chris White: Brexit. May’s Commons options after Bercow’s ruling.

There’s little that Conservative MPs can do to stop the Speaker – they don’t have the votes to depose him.

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

Yesterday, less than two weeks before the UK is due, as matters stand, to exit the EU without a deal, John Bercow threw a large spanner into the Government’s plans by declaring that unless a “new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same” as the last Meaningful Vote is tabled, he will decline to allow the existing deal to be resubmitted.  It is unlikely that there will now be a further vote on the Government’s deal this week, certainly before the Prime Minister heads to Brussels to ask for an extension.

In justifying his ruling, the Speaker quoted extensively from Erskine May, the Parliamentary ‘Bible’, citing the long-established precedent that a Government can’t simply keep submitting the same motion again and again, and hope that the Commons will eventually cave in.
This precedent was examined by the Exiting the EU Committee back last year, where the committee asked the Clerk of the Commons, Sir David Natzler, this very question. He gave a very different interpretation:

“You will know there is a general rule against being asked to decide again on the same question in the same Session, but that rule is not designed to obstruct the will of the House. If it plainly was the will of the House, there are ways in which that could happen, yes… If it was exactly the same document and they came back three months later for another bite, I do not think the procedures of the House are designed to obstruct the necessary business of Government in that way in such a crucial thing.”

The Government has been relying on this evidence for resubmitting the existing deal a third time this week. Instead, the Government finds itself having to vault a new hurdle – the Speaker’s judgement – as to whether they will be allowed to have another vote on their deal.  And it appears to be a high bar.  In an answer to Hilary Benn, the Chair of the Exiting the EU Committee, he said that there had to be a “demonstrable change to the proposition”, stating that a change to the Attorney General’s opinion would be insufficient.  Instead, it must be “fundamentally different… in terms of substance.”

There are ways around this ruling, but none of them are easy.  The first would be to see what changes will occur following the Prime Minister’s negotiations at this week’s EU Summit. Adding substantive text to the motion to introduce a technical delay to the end of June, ruling out a further delay beyond that, might arguably be a “substantial change” to the deal, though knowing this Speaker, I wouldn’t like to be certain.

Another option would be to table a paving motion, which would ask the House’s leave to disapply precedent and, were this motion won, the Government could then resubmit the existing deal for a further vote. However, the Government lost the first two meaningful votes on the deal by the largest and fourth largest defeats in modern times.  Alternatively, the Government could introduce legislation, which would change the provisions of the EU Withdrawal Act, as well as enshrining in legislation that Ministers could resubmit a deal as many times as they wished.  Again, this move is unlikely for the simple reason that it is unlikely to command a majority throughout the passage of the Bill, and would take time.

The Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, surprisingly floated the prospect of proroguing Parliament – literally ending the Parliamentary session, launching a new Queen’s Speech and having the next Meaningful Vote as the first item of business.  As Parliament would be starting a new session, the rules on putting the same motion twice in a session clearly wouldn’t apply.  This end would certainly not be achievable before March 29th, requiring the Government to pass an Article 50 extension next week by means of a Statutory Instrument vote. In any event, I doubt whether the Queen would appreciate being dragged into politics in this way, and it would also require the Government to win a vote on the Queens’ Speech, which in turn would also require every Conservative and DUP MP to support it.

None of the options above are attractive, and probably either a substantive change to the deal, or a ‘notwithstanding’ motion are the ways forward to Government is most likely to attempt.

But what irks both the Government and a substantial proportion of MPs is the apparent lack of impartiality from the Speaker.
In his lengthy opening statement yesterday, at no point did he refer to the possibility of a paving motion to disapply precedent.  Instead he attacked the Government on a range of issues, such as pulling the first vote last year, and its discourtesy for trying such a wheeze on.

When challenged by Mark Francois as to whether the same double jeopardy rules would apply to a Cooper-Boles Bill to take control of the Parliamentary timetable, or by Robert Halfon about whether a second referendum vote could be brought back again, he declined to give a ruling, saying that it would depend on the “circumstances”.  So one rule for the Government, and a different one for everyone else…

And this isn’t the first time that the Speaker has done this.  Yesterday, he was quoting supposedly inflexible precedent from 1604, yet back in January I wrote about how he reinterpreted Erskine May to allow an amendment to be tabled by Dominic Grieve, which stated that “If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing would would change”.  That ruling was clearly incorrect.

So the perennial question of whether the Conservative Party has confidence in the Speaker of the Commons has reared its head again. There is little that Conservative MPs can do about this – they don’t have the votes.  Instead the Government, and Conservative MPs, have to soldier on, but with Bills not being debated, and no clear way forward in sight, for how much longer can this go on?

WATCH: Bercow is asked about his Brexit ruling. He talks about bobble hats.

“It’s a very impressive hat that you are wearing, or a hat of sorts. Very well done.”

Henry Newman: Bercow has demonstrated he will do anything to frustrate Brexit. So it’s time for MPs to smell the coffee.

Critics of the deal need to compromise and accept the actual choices on offer. Refusal to do so risks an outcome far worse, or no Brexit at all.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.

At a time when all politics is in flux, and it sometimes seems that literally anything could happen, there are still some certainties. One is that the personal vanity of the Speaker knows few bounds. Yesterday he demonstrated this.

In a statement, John Bercow raised the pressure on the Government and suggested that he would use his own judgement to determine whether Theresa May’s Brexit deal could be put a third time to Parliament or not. He drew on a rule in Erskine May – the House of Commons procedure manual – which says that a motion cannot be repeatedly introduced if it has previously been rejected by MPs.

Bercow was skewered by Mark Francois who pointed out that the rule also applies to amendments, and so, according to the same logic, the Speaker ought not to allow further divisions on a second referendum (which has previously been voted down by the Commons), nor indeed on a customs union, the Single Market and so on. Francois is correct. Erskine May actually reads: “a motion or amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during the same session may not be brought forward again during the same session”.

But substance isn’t really the issue here. Bercow has huge prerogative powers. He can apply these powers inconsistently and there’s little anyone can do. His intention is to put himself front of centre of the national (and international) Brexit drama, even if it means turning a political crisis into a constitutional crisis. Incredibly, the Speaker’s intervention was celebrated by some Eurosceptics.

Brexiteer MPs need to wake up and smell the coffee. The options have fundamentally narrowed. As I have warned before, the Speaker is no ally of Brexit, let alone a hard Brexit or a No Deal. He is willing to do whatever is necessary – either bending procedure and convention, or sticking rigorously to it – so as to frustrate the Government’s attempt to deliver Brexit. This matters because in a hung Parliament the Speaker takes on huge powers. The Government has almost no working majority. Its ability to deliver any decent Brexit is profoundly at risk.

And yet there are far too many Conservative MPs who still don’t seem to recognise that May’s Brexit deal is the hardest Brexit now on offer. The danger with these MPs continuing to withhold their support, is that they will ensure we either lose Brexit altogether or more likely end up with a far softer form of it.

If you don’t like the regulatory alignment of the backstop, just wait till you see what wide-ranging alignment the Single Market or a so-called Common Market 2.0 would mean (as well as little ability to control free movement). If you think we might get stuck in a customs union via the backstop, I’d disagree with you, but suggest you imagine what it would mean to have a permanent customs union amended on top of the deal. Surely, it’s better to have a path out a customs union however uncertain rather than no path out?

In two days time Theresa May will go to Brussels to beg the EU to grant an extension to Article 50. This is a profound national humiliation and an abject failure of her Brexit plan. Many sides of the Conservative Party share blame here – the Government for its lamentable Brexit strategy, Remain-minded ministers who abstained on key votes, and backbench Brexiteer MPs who refuse to accept any reasonable compromise, even as options shift.

Boris Johnson’s suggestion that the Prime Minister should use the European Council meeting to secure further changes to the backstop is fanciful. The ERG argument has long been that No Deal had to be kept on the table so as to secure further concessions. If you accept that, then you should also accept that according to that reasoning, now that Parliament has taken No Deal off the table, the EU will be unlikely to concede further.

Some Eurosceptics seem convinced that we will leave anyway on 29th March because that’s the current law. Unfortunately, that won’t be true if the Prime Minister agrees an extension in Brussels. At that point our international law position will be that we will still be members of the EU. Anyway, it seems likely that a majority would be easily found to approve a statutory instrument to change the exit date – it would not be debated or capable of being amended.

Other Eurosceptics see a long extension as a possible path to No Deal. This is far-fetched. What is far more likely is that Parliament will impose a softer Brexit than the Prime Minister’s deal over the next few days or weeks. That would be a much worse outcome.

An extension may offer a route to a snap election. But that would mean May leading the party into another contest on a manifesto centred on her deal – surely the very thing her critics would abhor. She would either win, in which case it would be her deal. Or she could lose – in which case losing Brexit would be the least of our worries.

One senior backbench Eurosceptic seems to believe that in a future leadership contest any deal would be cast aside. According to this argument, it doesn’t matter if the Commons agrees Norway Plus – a future leader will reject it. But if you believe that a deal can be ditched after it’s signed, then why not sign the current deal which is obviously a better deal than Norway Plus (and if you got stuck in the backstop you could then junk it then)? The only answer is ambition.

Over the last few days, more and more erstwhile critics are coming around to the deal. ConservativeHome’s Mark Wallace writes that we have reached the point where MPs should vote for it. We have also seen Lord Trimble and Lord Bew arguing that the changes secured at Strasbourg have provided them with sufficient reassurance to now back the deal – for more on that, see a piece by Professor Guglielmo Verdirame QC on the Vienna Convention and the backstop. Former Party leader Lord Howard has endorsed the deal, while Lord Lamont said that “to assert as some Eurosceptics do that it is preferable to remain in the EU than to accept Mrs May’s deal is absurd”.

There’s precious little time left. Critics of the deal need to compromise and accept the actual choices on offer now. They may not agree with me that the deal is better than many are willing to admit, but they ought to see that it’s far preferable to either a permanent customs union or a Common Market 2.0 (as Norway Plus has been re-branded). It’s also worth going back again to the substance of the actual detail. Too often critics seem not to recognise that even in a worst-case scenario, the backstop, we would be free of EU regulations in most areas and under no obligation to agree new EU rules on goods and agriculture anywhere in the UK. We also now know that the EU cannot use the backstop as a ‘trap’ to force us to make further concessions.

If the DUP move to back the deal then Conservative critics of it, on both sides of the argument, Leave and Remain, should accept the need for compromise for the sake of the country, as well as the Conservative Party. If there’s clear support in the Commons, May should be able to reintroduce her deal one further time, probably after this week’s European Council. MPs will have one more chance to deliver Brexit. If they don’t take it, Bercow will try to ensure that there may not be another.

The moment for which Bercow has waited since he was a tiny boy

The crude effect of his ruling, crafted and sprung on a hapless Downing Street, is to make a third meaningful vote unlikely this week, and perhaps next week too.

If no “meaningful vote” is held before March 29, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement becomes MPs’ Withdrawal Agreement – as follows.  The Prime Minister agrees an extension with the EU this week.  Parliament confirms it next week and removes the date of Brexit from the EU Withdrawal Bill by means of a statutory instrument.  Either before or after the extension, a Letwin/Cooper alliance takes control of standing orders.  Brexit then passes into the hands of the House, which plumps for Customs Union membership; or Norway Plus, or a Second Referendum.

This chain of events may or may not take place, but what matters today is that the Speaker clearly thinks that it will.  Not even the mice in the Commons tea room believe he is an impartial umpire.  Perhaps there won’t be a Softer Brexit if May’s deal fails to come back to the House.  Maybe No Deal will instead slip through the procedural, timetabling and political cracks.  Perhaps Parliament will be prorogued.  Maybe MPs will stumble into the general election that they plainly doesn’t want.  The Speaker’s gamble is that none of these events will happen and that, if there is no further meaningful vote, Brexit will soften further or vanish altogether.  Which is what he wants.

Now it must be conceded that Bercow’s ruling – that the same Government motion should not be put to the Commons twice – has a point, and then some.  As he said, the second meaningful vote was different from the first, in that Ministers had new documents to put to the House: the joint instrument, the unilateral Government declaration, and so on.  But as far as we know, a third meaningful vote would not, as things stand, offer substantial change from the second.  There is some back and forth at the margins about the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, but Geoffrey Cox has not changed his legal advice (as far as we know).

However, this is not the heart of the matter.  Let’s return to the concept of substantial change.  The Speaker will pronounce not only on the fact of any change but on its amount – in other words, on what change might or might not be substantial.  This distinction crosses a line from fact to art.  In consequence, Ministers must now seek changes to the deal, and hope that these can clear the bar which Bercow will set for them.  We can expect him to place it very high indeed.  How fast time moves!  Only a few weeks ago, he told the Commons that “if we only went by precedent, manifestly nothing would ever change”.  Then, he slighted precedent.  Now, he embraces it – 1604 and all.

“I am the law,” the Lord Chancellor declares contemptuously in The Madness of King George.  In his own mind at least, the Speaker is precedent.  He is Erskine May.  He is procedure.  He can only be overuled by being deposed – which surely, since he is the creature of one of the two main parties, won’t happen.  The crude effect of his ruling, crafted and sprung on a clueless Downing Street, is to make a third meaningful vote unlikely this week, and perhaps next week too.  Number Ten will thrash around looking for ways out – prorogation, election, challenging what it will claim is inconsistency between Bercow’s treatment of motions and amendments.

Once upon a time, a boy – small; slow to learn to speak; unpopular – sat on the wall outside his parents’ house, almost hidden by the copy of The Times which he was reading.  He may have dreamed, as small boys sometimes do, of revenge on those slighting him.  At any rate, he made it to the Commons, and wanted to be Prime Minister.  He fell out with his party.  The call to Number Ten never came.  But he could none the less still ache, in a diminished form, to be at the centre of events – shaping them; making history; being someone special.  In January, he gave that yearning trial expression.  Today, he has upped it to the next level.  Those childhood fantasies are coming true.