As Brexit racks Parliament, British democracy feels the strain

Why We Wrote This

The stakes of the Brexit process aren't solely in the outcome of Tuesday's vote. They also lie in whether Britain's venerable democratic system can handle the stresses that the debate is putting upon it.

Mark Duffy/UK Parliament/AP
Members of Parliament gathered near Commons Speaker John Bercow (r.) during Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London Dec. 19. The Brexit debate is slated to pause for a vote Jan. 15.

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John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, is meant to be a neutral figure. Speakers, though members of Parliament, renounce their party and function solely as referees of disputes over procedures – at least in normal times. But the debate over whether Britain should leave the European Union is far from normal times in Westminster. And Brexit is stress-testing the norms on which Britain’s centuries-old democracy depends. Mr. Bercow is at the nexus of many of these stresses, as pro-Brexit members of his former party accuse him of shedding his neutrality in order to tip the scales in favor of Remain. Most recently, Bercow allowed the government’s motion last week to start a five-day Brexit debate to be amended – a decision that historically would not have been made. In this case, it set up the government for a defeat, its second in 24 hours. Pro-Brexit lawmakers erupted in fury, but Bercow declared that he had interpreted the rules as he saw fit. “The rules and regulations and precedents say one thing,” says historian Catherine Haddon, “but actually the uncodified nature of it allowed John Bercow to do what he thought was right....”

Britain’s decision to exit the European Union has divided the country and its political parties. But as Parliament prepares to vote Tuesday on the terms of withdrawal, Brexit is also stress-testing the norms on which Britain’s centuries-old democracy depends.

That Britain has no written constitution, but instead relies on statutes, conventions, treaties, and judicial rulings, allows its elected politicians more discretion to act. In the high-stakes battle over Brexit, a sense of restraint has given way to a bare-knuckles contest in which conventions are flouted and rules reinterpreted in ways that could unsettle future democratic governance.

“I think Brexit is pushing the rules of what is normal behavior ever further because it’s such an extraordinary situation,” says Catherine Haddon, a historian and senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London.

The speaker and the government

These tensions are playing out in a variety of interactions between the government and Parliament. The most overt is a battle of wills between Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons.

The speaker is a member of Parliament who casts no votes and acts as a neutral chair of debates and final arbiter of disputes over procedures. Though still a representative of constituents, the speaker renounces affiliation with his or her former party, and has typically operated as a non-partisan referee in Parliament.

But Mr. Bercow, previously a member of Ms. May’s Conservative Party, has come under fire repeatedly from his former bloc amid the highly charged Brexit debate – primarily in the form of accusations that he has shed his neutrality in order to tip the scales in favor of Remain.

Most recently, Bercow allowed the government’s motion last week to start a five-day Brexit debate to be amended. The amendment ended up being put to a vote that the government lost, its second defeat in 24 hours and another blow to the embattled May. She is widely expected to lose Tuesday’s vote on her Brexit agreement.

Such amendments have historically not been permitted; even Bercow’s clerks reportedly advised him against it. But Bercow declared that he had interpreted the rules as he saw fit. 

Pro-Brexit lawmakers erupted in fury. Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative leader of the Commons and a senior ally of May, later accused Bercow of overreach and said the effect would be far greater than a defeat for her government. “It doesn’t just damage me, it damages all of Parliament,” she said on the British channel ITV.

Pro-Brexit MPs allege that Bercow has been working to undermine Brexit in concert with MPs who support a second referendum. He has rejected all allegations of bias, including ownership of an anti-Brexit bumper sticker that he said belonged to his wife. (He has faced separate complaints over harassment and bullying of staff members.)

Bercow insists that he upholds the diversity of opinion in Parliament and its sovereignty. That the controversial amendment passed last week, which imposes a three-day deadline for May to present a Plan B if MPs reject her Brexit deal, showed that his thinking was broadly aligned with that of the House. But it also pointed to the discretionary power of creative thinking.

“The rules and regulations and precedents say one thing, but actually the uncodified nature of it allowed John Bercow to do what he thought was right for the power of Parliament and the sovereignty of Parliament,” says Dr. Haddon.

Partisanship in Parliament?

The complex and arcane rules on how Parliament debates legislation normally go largely unnoticed, says Louise Thompson, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester who studies Parliamentary procedures. Nor would voters pay much attention to Bercow, were it not for the internecine politics of Brexit and the feverish headlines it generates.

“The speaker has to take decisions like this every week, but it’s [about] more boring and mundane stuff,” she says.

Bercow is likely to exercise more discretion over the next few weeks as MPs are clamoring for a chance to vote on alternatives to May’s unpopular Brexit deal. The polarization of views on Brexit, and the fissures within the ruling Conservative Party, will likely make him a lightning rod for all sides. Pro-Conservative newspapers have alleged without evidence that Bercow is plotting with rebel MPs to bypass May’s minority government and propose legislation to stop Brexit.

Even if such speculation is unfounded, the anger of Brexiters towards Bercow and his alleged favoritism could have lasting consequences for how Parliament operates, including the idea of a nonpartisan speaker to whom MPs reflexively defer.

“In the absence of faith in the true impartiality of the Chair, the obvious alternative is for both parties to ditch the next convention down the list, the respectful alternation of which party provides the Speaker, and instead compete to put in place Speakers whom they openly expect to be their partisan servants,” wrote Mark Wallace on his ConservativeHome website.

Such partisanship would bring Parliament more in line with the ways of the US Congress, in which speakers and majority leaders rewrite the rules to support their agendas. But lawmakers in Washington in the past have also felt bound by political convention and a degree of forbearance, a spirit that critics say has eroded in recent decades as polarized parties brook no compromises.

In 2013, then-Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid used the “nuclear option” to end filibusters of senior judges and cabinet ministers, a change that the Republicans subsequently used to confirm President Trump’s choices, even for unqualified or scandal-plagued nominees.

'Brexit has empowered Parliament'

Whereas the US Constitution dictates a separation between executive and legislative branches, Britain’s government is both of the Parliament and accountable to it. The balance of power between the two branches – who has the whip hand in policymaking – is usually a function of the size and cohesion of the ruling party’s bloc of seats in the House of Commons (the upper House of Lords is unelected and no longer has veto powers over legislation).

In May’s case, she leads a minority government that is openly at war over Brexit and her leadership; she promised last month to step down before the next election after more than one-third of MPs voted against her in a show of confidence. From this perspective, defenders of Bercow say he is pushing back against a government that has tried to steamroll Parliament and bend the rules to its advantage.

“The whole Brexit process has empowered Parliament. It’s strengthened the ability of MPs to constrain and annoy the government,” says Dr. Thompson.

Last month Parliament was due to vote on May’s Brexit agreement after five days of debate. On the fourth day, May stood before a jeering House and announced that she had abruptly shelved the vote, which she admitted faced certain defeat.

From his raised chair, Bercow knitted his brow. When he spoke he left little doubt as to his views. “Halting the debate after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute will be thought by many members of this House to be deeply discourteous,” he said.

In a rare move, Parliament voted the previous week to find the government in contempt after it refused to publish its legal advice on the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. “It takes a very angry Parliament to vote that way,” says Haddon.

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