I wish to make a statement to the House. There has been much speculation over the past week about the possibility of the Government bringing before the House a motion on Brexit for another so-called meaningful vote under the statutory framework provided in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. On 13 March, however, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) asked on a point of order, at column 394, whether it would be proper for the Government to keep bringing the same deal back to the House ad infinitum. I replied that no ruling was necessary at that stage, but that one might be required at some point in the future. Subsequently Members on both sides of the House, and indeed on both sides of the Brexit argument, have expressed their concerns to me about the House being repeatedly asked to pronounce on the same fundamental proposition.
The 24th edition of “Erskine May” states on page 397:
“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
It goes on to state:
“Attempts have been made to evade this rule by raising again, with verbal alterations, the essential portions of motions which have been negatived. Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgment of the Chair.”
This convention is very strong and of long standing, dating back to 2 April 1604. Last Thursday, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) quoted examples of occasions when the ruling had been reasserted by four different Speakers of this House, notably in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. Each time, the Speaker of the day ruled that a motion could not be brought back because it had already been decided in that same Session of Parliament. Indeed, “Erskine May” makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920.
One of the reasons why the rule has lasted so long is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes. Decisions of the House matter. They have weight. In many cases, they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents. Absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention but to general compliance with it; thus, as “Erskine May” notes, the Public Bill Office has often disallowed Bills on the ground that a Bill with the same or very similar long title cannot be presented again in the same Session.
So far as our present situation is concerned, let me summarise the chronology of events. The draft EU withdrawal agreement, giving effect to the deal between the Government and the EU, was published on 14 November and the agreement itself, together with the accompanying political declaration on the future relationship, received endorsement from the European Council on 25 November. The first scheduled debate on what I will hereafter refer to as “the deal” was due to take place on 11 December. However, on 10 December the vote was postponed after 164 speeches had already been made over three of the five days allotted for debate. That postponement was caused not by me or by the House, but by the Government. Indeed, I pointed out at the time that that was deeply discourteous to the House and I suggested that the permission of the House for that postponement should be sought. Regrettably, it was not.
Over five weeks later, following a further five-day debate, the first meaningful vote was held on 15 January, which the Government lost by a margin of 230 votes—the largest in parliamentary history. Subsequently, the second meaningful vote was expected to take place in February, but once again there was a postponement. It finally happened only last Tuesday, 12 March. The Government’s motion on the deal was again very heavily defeated.
In my judgment, that second meaningful vote motion did not fall foul of the convention about matters already having been decided during the same Session. This was because it could be credibly argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the House on 15 January. It contained a number of legal changes which the Government considered to be binding and which had been agreed with the European Union after intensive discussions. Moreover, the Government’s second meaningful vote motion was accompanied by the publication of three new documents—two issued jointly with the EU and a unilateral declaration from the UK not objected to by the EU. In procedural terms, it was therefore quite proper that the debate and the second vote took place last week. The Government responded to its defeat, as they had promised to do, by scheduling debates about a no-deal Brexit and an extension of article 50 on 13 and 14 March respectively.
It has been strongly rumoured, although I have not received confirmation of this, that a third, and even possibly a fourth, meaningful vote motion will be attempted. Hence this statement, which is designed to signal what would be orderly and what would not. This is my conclusion: if the Government wish to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the House on 12 March, that would be entirely in order. What the Government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes. This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject; it is simply meant to indicate the test which the Government must meet in order for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held in this parliamentary Session.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I make three points following your helpful statement?
First, at the beginning of it, you used “may” and not the word “must”. At the end, you used the word “must” and not the word “may”. Those are the first two points.
The third point is this: when Sir Ian Gilmour put forward a provision in effect for putting carpets and coffee in betting offices, the puritans objected, so the Bill was withdrawn. Shortly afterwards, a Bill on miscellaneous premises and miscellaneous provisions was passed because no one noticed that it was to do with coffee and carpets in betting shops.
Therefore, there are times when the title of a Bill has been changed. Perhaps if the long title of something that the Government proposed was changed, that might be accepted by the Chair, rather than it having to be ruled out.
I am not sure there were three points there—I detected only two. I do not wish to be unkind or discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, whom I hope I always treat with the utmost respect, but I am somewhat foxed and befuddled by his first observation, which was not as overpoweringly clear to me as manifestly it was to him. I certainly referred to “Erskine May”. I was not conscious that I had used the word “may” early in my statement and the word “must” at the end of it in a way that would brook of contradiction or, indeed, be open to the suggestion that the words were contradictory. If he wishes to labour under that impression and can subsequently convince me, over either a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, that I have erred in some material respect, I shall always be prepared to profit by his counsel. As for the point in respect of the late Ian Gilmour, I am not familiar with that particular example. I suspect it would be interesting reading, and I will add it to my list for the period of days that lies ahead. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for the courtesy with which he has said it.
I will come to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) but first let us go to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems to me that what you have said makes an enormous amount of sense, given that this has been defeated on two separate occasions. Unless there is a substantial difference, it must follow that what you have said, in a very important statement, makes an enormous amount of sense. I just wondered about one thing with regard to the precedent of 1604, which was whether there was any connection between that and the gunpowder plot being very shortly afterwards. [Laughter.]
Well, the hon. Gentleman is a far superior historian, and he may know this—I will not say. I appreciate also his sense of humour on what is, nevertheless, an extremely important occasion. I thank him for what he has said. I have always respected him as a principled and indefatigable parliamentarian. In fact, I think that across this House, whether people agree with him or not, they know of one thing, which I once said, as he knows, on the occasion of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to this place. As I said directly to her, the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) speaks and votes only and always as he thinks the national interest requires. There can be no greater compliment to a Member of Parliament than to say that to him or her.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you for your statement this afternoon? We do indeed live in interesting times. However, it is fair to say that we are in a constitutional crisis, and I seek your advice on how we can convey a message to the Government that the issue of leadership is now most important and, indeed, imperative. What can we do to prevail upon the Prime Minister that she must immediately call a meeting of all Opposition leaders in order that we can react to this crisis and find a way ahead, and, moreover, that she must immediately meet the Heads of Government in Edinburgh and in Cardiff?
The right hon. Gentleman has made his point with force and alacrity. It is not for me to say whom the Prime Minister should or should not meet, but that point is registered and on the record. If I know the right hon. Gentleman as well as I think I do, it will be repeated by him with some passion and vociferousness in the days ahead and, not least because of the force with which it is articulated again and again and again, I feel certain that it will be heard. Whether it is heeded remains to be seen, but it will be heard.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, may I say how delighted I am that you have decided to follow precedent, which is something I am greatly in favour of? Dare I say that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than over the 99 who are not in need of repentance. I wonder whether you might help the House with two points of clarity. First, would your indication today prevent the Second Reading, or even the First Reading, of the so-called withdrawal agreement Bill, which may have the same effect of confirming the meaningful vote? Secondly, would I be right in thinking that a new Session after a prorogation would allow the motion to be returned to the House?
The House would decide on the principle of the withdrawal agreement Bill at Second Reading, if we got to that point. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes and the—if he will forgive my saying so—partly rhetorical question accompanying it about post Prorogation and a new Session seem to me to be self-evidently valid. I am not advocating that, but that point is self-evidently valid and I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm to the House that the point of the rule in “Erskine May” was to stop the bullying of the legislature by the Executive? We should exclude the fact that MPs may be either strong-armed, bullied or bribed with issues such as the sacking of the civil servant who is currently in charge of the Brexit negotiations—who, by the way, was overheard in a Brussels bar predicting that what we have seen with meaningful vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ad infinitum, would be the Government's way of getting this botched deal through the House. The “Erskine May” rules are there precisely to avoid the kind of spectacle we have been witnessing in the past few months. Will you take all the Government’s other behaviours—ignoring votes of Parliament, making a distinction between votes that somehow are binding and others that are not binding, refusing to grant Opposition days, and beginning not to vote on Opposition days and to ignore the motions that the House passes, thereby devaluing Parliament’s opinion—into account as you judge meaningful vote 3 and any motion that the Government bring forward?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I will reflect carefully on what she said to me. She is an extremely experienced and seasoned parliamentarian and, of course, a former shadow Leader of the House, so I will factor into my thinking the considerations that she has adduced. I do not think there is one single rationale for the emergence and continuation of the convention. I touched on some of the thinking behind it in my statement. It would be true to say that a concern with the judicious use of parliamentary time, when that time is finite, and the avoidance of its wastage is an important factor. Another important factor is ensuring clarity and consistency so far as the statute book is concerned. Associated with and underlying all that is a concept of respect for the importance of decisions made by the House and the weight to be attached to them. I will reflect carefully on these matters.
I say gently to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—because I failed to respond to this point, which was very good and wittily delivered—that so far as tradition is concerned, he has a perfectly fair point. A tradition does matter and is important. What I would say to him is that just because it is not desirable to follow precedent in every case, irrespective of circumstance, that does not mean it is justified not to follow it. It depends on the particular circumstance. For example, it depends whether one is facilitating the House and allowing the expression of an opinion that might otherwise be denied, as was the case on 9 January.
In this case, of course, where we are talking about the same-question rule, I have already explained that this matter has been treated of by the House, so the question of whether a subsequent motion is the same, or substantially the same, is a live matter for consideration and judgment at the appropriate time. In fact, that seems to me to be so obviously commonsensical an observation that only an extraordinarily sophisticated person, perhaps bereft of such common sense, could fail to grasp it. The hon. Gentleman most certainly would not fall into that category, because he is both extraordinarily sophisticated and blessed, I feel sure, with a very large supply of common sense.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have said memorably in the past that, sometimes, we have to take the rough with the smooth. Well, it seems to me that, today, that applies to others. May I ask whether this principle applies in other contexts as well? For instance, the House voted a few weeks ago on what became known as the Cooper-Boles amendment to overturn Standing Order 14(1), essentially to take control of the Order Paper for a day. That was rejected. Last week, the House then voted against what became the Benn amendment, which was, I would argue, substantially similar to the original Cooper-Boles amendment to take control of the Order Paper and override Standing Order 14(1). Now you on that occasion, Sir, judged that it was permissible to ask this question because it was not exactly the same as the first one. May I offer you a thought that if there were to be a third variant of that, if it were to be substantially the same, then, to be consistent, Sir, you would have to rule that out, too?
I am always grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have often reminded the House, and I say this for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings, that I first came to know him in September 1983 when I unkindly and wrongly suggested that, intellectually, he was knee-high to a grasshopper. That was very unfair of me and, to his great credit, he did not appear to bear any grudge and we have got on pretty well over the ensuing 35 and a half years. I always listen to his advice. The answer is that everything depends on context and circumstance—[Interruption.] Yes, of course it does; manifestly and incontrovertibly it does. It is a question not of abstract principle or wallowing, as Edmund Burke would say, in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, but of attending to circumstance, and I would look at that with the important considerations and principle of which he has reminded me in the forefront of my mind in making a judgment. He is absolutely entitled to raise that point and I would indeed have to weigh up very carefully whether a proposition was in fact the same or substantially the same or whether it could credibly be contended that it was different.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is what happens when you do not seek consensus and compromise from the beginning, but lay down red lines and doggedly stick to them with an act of stubbornness and brinkmanship that has brought us to this point. The crisis that is now upon the country has to be unprecedented. We are due to leave the European Union in 11 days and there is no plan and there is no certainty, and this country, especially business, is crying out for them.
Mr Speaker, what would you now expect the Government to do? We are relying on tweets, rumours and spin from No.10 and, as I have said, the clock is ticking. I say with no disrespect to those sitting on the Treasury Bench that there is no senior Member here from Government who can help us with a timetable—[Interruption.] I said a senior Member who can help us with a timetable. [Interruption.] Now, we have that senior Member—the Leader of the House—with a timetable. I meant no disrespect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Mr Speaker, what do you now expect in terms of this timetable so that, in this crisis, we can make progress and do the right thing by the country?
What I have to say to the right hon. Lady is threefold. First, there was already present in the Chamber—before the arrival of the Leader of the House whom we welcome to our proceedings—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who, by any standard, must be considered to be senior. I will not get into a vulgar argument about the respective levels of seniority of different hon. and right hon. Members, and there are, of course, different forms of seniority, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was already present and the Leader of the House has now joined us.
I say to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that it is not for me to say what the Government should do, but it would be helpful to the House to have the earliest possible indication of how the Government intend to proceed in this important matter. Of course, we may learn more about the Government’s intentions as a result of the upcoming urgent question that I have granted to the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who applied to me for that question this morning. I have every expectation that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe and many others will be in their places for that, so we will learn more anon.
Colleagues’ disposition—in other words, what they choose to do and how they wish to proceed—is a matter for them. The role of the Speaker is to seek to facilitate the House and, if I may say so—and I will—to have a particular regard for the concerns of Back-Bench Members, who should be heard in this place. Part of the responsibility of the Speaker is, frankly, to speak truth to power. I have always done that and, no matter what, I always will, because I think that is the proper thing to do. Others can proceed as they wish, but I have never been pushed around and I am not going to start now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As a newish Members of this House, I thank you for the clarity of your statement, and for confirming that everything depends on context and circumstance. Since the vote last Tuesday, this House has voted against a second referendum, against the Cooper-Boles amendment—twice—and against a no-deal Brexit in 11 days’ time. Are those the sort of decisions that, in your view, affect the context and circumstances on which this House might make its own decision?
I think the context is a freestanding matter. It depends on the situation at the time, and that is partly a matter of opinion. All government—all influence of human beings upon another—ultimately rests upon opinion, and it depends on what the situation is more widely. I know that the hon. Lady would not seek to entice me—because that would be unkind of her and she would not do that—to pronounce on other questions that are not today before the House. I would not do that, but I would reflect on them in the circumstances of the time, and it is perfectly reasonable that I should be asked to do so if that situation arises.
I do apologise to the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, whom I should have called several minutes ago.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In distinguishing between the character of the first meaningful vote and the second, in your statement you drew attention to the fact that, in the second meaningful vote, the Government had brought back additional documents, assurances and legal agreements that had not be contained within the first. Does your statement suggest in any way that, in order for a third meaningful vote not to fall within the statement that you have just made, it would require further changes to be agreed with the European Union, rather than, for example, the Government saying that they are prepared to make an offer to a particular party represented in this Chamber about its participation in future arrangements? In other words, would there have to be new political agreement under section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 in order for such as motion to be in order, as opposed to not in order?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I would say—preliminarily and off the top of my head—that, in all likelihood, the answer to his question is yes; I do think that a demonstrable change to the proposition would be required. For example, simply a change in an opinion about something would not itself constitute a change in the offer. I would have to look at the particulars and make an honest assessment of the circumstances, and perhaps of the competing claims made as to the veracity of one proposition, argument or another, but, fundamentally, for something to be different, it has to be, by definition, fundamentally different—not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance—and this is in the context of a negotiation with others outside the United Kingdom. That would be my initial feeling.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not envy you in trying to make these difficult decisions. First, can I press you on your understanding of what is substantively different? For example, were the Government to come back with a proposition that they would write into law the Stormont lock, would that be substantively different? If there were to be commentary that changed our opinion of this at the European Council, would that be substantially different? Many Members of this House feel that having taken no deal off the table, which I voted against, already makes the situation substantially different, so will you say a little more about that?
Secondly, Mr Speaker, you listed some precedents starting with 1604, which is very interesting to new Members. Some Members were already here; I was not, as a new Member. We are in an unprecedented situation in which we have voted for a referendum, giving sovereignty to those it belongs to—the people—and we are now bound by that decision. How will you deal with this unprecedented situation? My constituents who are worried about their jobs, or worried about losing the Brexit they voted for, will always prefer you, instead of rigidly sticking with precedents from 1604, to be a modern Speaker for modern times who cannot stand in the way of delivering the early deal that I believe will solve this problem.
With the very greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I have demonstrated, over a period of nine and a half years and more, that I am not a stickler for tradition. I do not believe in doing everything the same way forever more just because people say to me, as so many have, “Oh, Mr Speaker, it’s always been done that way, or, “Oh, we’ve never previously had X.” I have been ready to countenance change. I remember once being told many years ago by a retired and senior Clerk of this House that she was very pleased that I had secured support for the establishment of a nursery in the House that Members and staff could pay for. She said to me that she did not know whether I was aware that throughout her four decades’ service in the House, the idea of establishing such a facility had periodically been discussed but unfortunately nothing had ever happened, which was not helpful to her in terms of work/life balance—her professional commitments and her childcare responsibilities. So I think I can say, with the very greatest respect, that I have attempted to be a progressive change-maker. As for the particulars concerned, it has to depend on the circumstances. I would have to look at the specifics. It would be reckless and foolhardy to pronounce in the abstract.
I would say further to the hon. Gentleman, just to remind him of the context of my statement, that, as regards the use of time, we have been addressing this matter for a period spanning four months. In so far as time has been lost during that period—for example, at one point, a loss of five weeks without the matter coming to the House—that was not a result of fiat by the Chair or folly by the House; it was the express decision of the Government. I cannot, off the top of my head, remember for certain whether the hon. Gentleman supported the Government’s position on that matter. I have a very high regard for his ability, because he is an extremely able man. I hope he will not take offence if I say, in the nicest possible way, that he has always seemed to me to be a keen supporter of close regulatory alignment with the Government Whips Office.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your guidance today. Here we are in the gravest constitutional situation that I have seen in my nearly 40 years in this House, and were it not for your good guidance today and over the past few weeks, I think this House would have been very badly served indeed. The fact of the matter is that what you have said today has great repercussions for the business of the House. What is your advice from the Chair, or could we have an early statement from the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, on what is the next step? We are leaving the European Union and we have only a few days. What is the best way that we can represent our constituents at this grave time of crisis?
The short answer is: let us debate these matters sooner rather than later. Of course the Government, for the most part, control the Order Paper—we know that, and the Leader of the House is the Government’s representative in the House—but there are situations in which Members can give voice to their views, whether the Government particularly want that to happen or not. For example, on more than 570 occasions over the last nine and a half years, I have seen fit to grant urgent questions, believing that that is in the interests of the House, is beneficial to Back Benchers and secures ministerial presence in the Chamber, so that the Government can be legitimately questioned, probed, scrutinised, challenged and held to account. There will be further such opportunities today, and knowing the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman, who will have served 40 years in the House in less than two months’ time, I feel certain that he will be well up to the task of posing suitable inquiries and expressing his views on this matter in the days ahead.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are correct that “Erskine May” says:
“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
That is absolutely clear. When you allowed the second meaningful vote, your ruling was clearly a balanced decision, but “Erskine May” seems to be clear that it is about whether the motion is substantially changed, not whether something else has happened—that is irrelevant; it is what has happened to the motion. We have in this House the procedure of use of the previous question, which I was thinking of using. The reason why we have it is so that the same question can continue to be debated another time. Can you confirm that this is about the substance of the motion, not something else happening?
It is about the substance of the motion—what it is commending to the House, and what proposition is being put. It is not a question purely of the words, but of the meaning, the intention and the purpose.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have made today a very important and dramatic statement. Already constituents are getting in touch with me to ask exactly what that means, and we have to be clear with the country about what you have said. The Government cannot bring back another meaningful vote if it is the same in substance as the last one. The Government’s one and only intention is to achieve and secure that. This week, they intended to do that very thing, and now you have said that that cannot happen. Stressing that for clarity would be abundantly helpful.
My experience of this Government—I do not know whether it is yours—is that they will try anything to get this through, and they will have the impertinence to try to bring this back once again in any guise that they think will be possible; perhaps it will be under the guise of the DUP agreeing with their deal. How do you intend to be vigilant about that prospect? Under what criteria will a motion be assessed, if the Government bring one back and try to present it as being significantly different from their last one? How do we judge what they are doing, so that this ruling can stand? It is an important ruling, and it is correct.
It seems to me that it is principally a question of whether the proposition is the same, or substantially the same. I would confer. I would of course seek advice. I would have my eyes and ears open. I am looking to serve the House, to reflect its interests and to demonstrate respect for its wishes. I simply repeat that the convention is there for a purpose, and that purpose seems to me to be an honourable and valid purpose. I am afraid that I will have to look at the particulars in the light of what is presented, but I hope that the Government would feel that respect for procedure matters.
I note that, as the hon. Gentleman asks his question and I respond, the Leader of the House is playing with her electronic device, as is the Deputy Chief Whip. I did not include him in the category of very senior people in the House, but I readily grant that that is a debatable proposition. It would seem to me to be helpful if people showed respect for each other in these circumstances, and if, when in the Chamber, they listened to what others had to say. However, if they choose not to do so, so be it. I try to show good manners, and I hope others will try to do so as well.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand your clarity on this. A second referendum was overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons in a vote last week; does this mean that if that is brought back, you will apply the same considerations, so that such a motion is not repeated?
I did indicate to earlier inquisitors that everything depends on the circumstance. Is the proposition fundamentally the same, or can it be argued that, in the circumstances of the time, it is a different proposition? I would have to look at that in the circumstances of the time. Is it a relevant factor to be considered? Of course it is, and that is why I have articulated the convention in the way I have done.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, are you able to update the House on any sanctions that might have been applied since 1604 to any Governments who have sought to re-table the same motion, and what such sanctions are available to you today? Over a number of months, we have tabled a succession of amendments in relation to a people’s vote, and I want your reassurance and clarification that there is nothing in what you have said that precludes our pressing another amendment on the matter of a people’s vote.
As I have just said to the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), it depends on the context or the circumstances. I cannot yet know in what situation a proposition may be put.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asks me about sanctions. I am not aware of any particular sanctions, other than that if a proposition is judged to be the same or substantially the same, it will not find its way on to the Order Paper. There may be instances in which this has been dishonoured or inadvertently neglected, but I referenced in my statement the fact that the absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention, but to general compliance with it. For the most part, the convention has not been invoked in respect of Governments, but I would argue that that is not least because, on the whole, Governments have tended to comply with the convention.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Do you concede that had you made this statement in fundamentally the same way between the first and second presentations of a meaningful vote, there might have been Members of this House who, believing that the second meaningful vote was their last opportunity to vote positively on the question, would have changed their minds? When there are particularly fast-moving negotiations, we have sometimes seen substantial, if subtle, changes to an agreement during a debate and before a vote. May I inquire how, in that instance, you would assess the validity of another presentation of the meaningful vote?
The hon. Gentleman’s latter point is nuanced, and I think it would be sensible to say, I am afraid—because I think it will disappoint him, but it happens to have the advantage of being true—that I would have to look at the particulars. I cannot possibly be expected to pontificate, or even speculate idly, on an abstract proposition. I would have to look at the reality of what was on the table.
I have always had a great fondness for the hon. Gentleman, but on his first point, I have to say that although the Speaker tries to be helpful to the House, it is not my responsibility, and I would not ordinarily be expected, to hold Members’ hand in advising them on how they should vote in a particular circumstance. Members are perfectly capable of making those judgments for themselves. The reason I did not make a statement at an earlier stage, I say in terms that brook of no misunderstanding, is that no such statement was required, for the simple reason that I adduced in my statement: the second vote on 12 March and the debate that preceded it were entirely proper; there was not a breach of the convention. For the hon. Gentleman to say that it would have been helpful if I had said what I did not say at a time that I could have said it because it might have assisted Members, who as a result of it not being said were not helped, is not altogether helpful, and I am not sure that his logic is impeccable.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your statement today. The Government have gained an infamous historical reputation for trickery and abuse of Parliament during this whole process, and already rumours are going around that they might seek to use prorogation as a method of getting out of this. Can you confirm that that would not only provoke a greater constitutional crisis, but also result in us losing every single piece of legislation currently before both Houses, including many of the pieces of legislation needed to implement any Brexit?
If particular legislation was subject to carry-over, that would not apply, but in the expectation, let us say—or, to use a more neutral term, in the circumstance—that it was not subject to the carry-over procedure, manifestly and incontrovertibly it would fall. As for whether the Government are contemplating that, I have no way of knowing. No Minister has indicated that to me. I have no idea what is in their mind. It would be an unusual step, but look: I have been in this place a little over 20 years, and some quite unusual things have happened. I have no way of knowing whether this is being contemplated.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In 1604 and in 1920, we were a sovereign Parliament, and we were not subject to the EU constitution, which this House voted for under the Lisbon treaty. This House has passed legislation under article 50 for us to leave the European Union, which is time-sensitive. Parliament could proceed in a rather stately manner in 1920, because it was not subject to such things, but we as a Parliament have voted to leave on a particular date; therefore there is a certain importance to making decisions prior to that date, and not in the next Session.
Secondly, the meaningful vote in itself is a constitutional innovation. It was this Parliament trying to impose on the Government greater parliamentary scrutiny. In that process, the Government have brought forward votes—more votes than most of us expected, and with more amendments than most of us expected. There was a degree of constitutional innovation in what you ruled during that process, Mr Speaker, in order to involve Parliament. Given the time-sensitive nature of the proposal, and given that this Parliament wanted to be involved, I can see no reason why we should not be put through the pain of perhaps another vote.
I stress that the article 50 legislation went through this House and the withdrawal Act went through this House. Every Member of this House expects to have a say on the type of Brexit that we will actually undertake. Sometimes, even if we are dealing with a matter that has been dealt with before, it is important that this House makes a decision or decides not to make a decision; but not considering the matter again could in itself have consequences.
Again, one has to reflect on the particulars. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the issue is not the pain of any vote, which is a subjective matter upon which I do not think I should pontificate—especially as I do not cast such, other than in the circumstance of a tie, which has not arisen since 1993 in this Chamber—but its propriety.
It is absolutely true that the House has legislated in respect of article 50—I believe it did so in March 2017 in the last Parliament—and that that has created a strong expectation, but whether Parliament chooses to legislate on this matter or, as the Government have signalled in recent days, depending on circumstance, to request a particular extension, is a matter for the House. I do not think that the issue of pain really comes into it; it is just a question of what is proper.
I know that the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known since we competed with each other in Bristol South in June 1989, is a stickler for propriety. [Interruption.] I am asked who won. It would not be seemly to say, but I think the hon. Gentleman’s result at the 1992 election was rather better than mine.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Obviously we fully endorse and respect your statement. On a point of clarification, I want to ask something that I am sure people out there will be asking when they read this statement today. On 29 January, the House of Commons voted against the SNP and Plaid Cymru amendment on extending the article 50 period and ruling out no deal by 327 votes to 39. We obviously voted again on those matters last week. Will you clarify why that did not fall under the same ruling?
I would have to look back at those particular votes. I did not receive advice at that time about non-compliance. I do not think that there was a general sense in the House that there was an issue of non-compliance, and I was not asked to rule on it. Matters are already treated of by the Table Office on the basis of established custom and practice. If those matters were accepted on to the paper, the issue of selection would have been for me, in the interests of facilitating the debate. However, the issue of propriety was not raised with me at that time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Most people who watch our deliberations are watching with increasing amazement. They do not understand the nuances of the twists and changes with which we go about our business here. To many of them, what we are doing at the moment makes very little sense at all; they want to get on with things.
May I ask you, Mr Speaker, as the custodian of the reputation of this House, whether you really think it was right to bring forward this ruling today, at this stage, rather than perhaps last week, because many of us are looking forward to voting again one way or another this week? Perhaps you can inform the House how you came to this opinion and when, and say whether it would have been better at the time of the second vote to announce that there would not be time to have a third vote.
I am a little taken aback by the inquiry from the right hon. Gentleman. I signalled to the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) why I did not think any statement was required at that time. It is, of course, true that the House passed a motion on Thursday that specified a potential end date for an agreement to be reached. It specified that if an agreement was reached by that date, a particular extension to article 50—if memory serves me, to the end of June—would be requested of the Union. Why did I not say anything at that time? The motion that was passed was not in respect of the withdrawal agreement, and I could have had no way of knowing at that time whether revisions to the agreement or the accompanying declaration would be sought, let alone obtained.
I can be expected to rule only at the material time. If I had ruled—[Interruption.] I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I know that he has a great sense of fair play. If I had ruled last week, I think I can say with complete confidence that there would have been people accusing me of being hasty and premature, and commending to me the idea of waiting. I thought that it was appropriate to reflect on the matter over a period of days, and I am saying what I am saying before the Government table a new proposition. It seems to me timely to say it now, rather than to wait several days, but to have done so several days ago did not seem to me to be warranted. I have made my best judgment in the interests of the House as an institution, and of its individual Members.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are obviously right that the House does not wish to vote on the same proposition over and again. Equally, I am sure that you will be aware of the fact that some hon. Members were interested in meaningful votes because at that time, they would be able to vote on amendments on matters that we have not yet considered. If the Government are unable to make any changes to their proposition, I seek your guidance on how we might secure opportunities for voting on those alternative propositions. I heard you talk about urgent questions, but of course, there is no vote on an urgent question or a statement, and a Standing Order No. 24 motion is in neutral terms. The Government have not been very generous recently in offering Opposition day debates either, so I seek your advice on how hon. Members might proceed.
Obviously, it would be helpful to the Opposition if Opposition days were supplied. That has not happened recently and I have no way of knowing whether the Leader of the House has it in mind to provide for Opposition days. I think that colleagues would think that it was a democratic and seemly thing to do to ensure that the principal Opposition party had the requisite allocation of days. So far as other business is concerned, the hon. Lady should look closely at the Standing Order No. 24 procedure. What she says about it is true, but I think that she should reflect upon the opportunities that the Standing Order No. 24 procedure presents, because the opportunities are fuller than has traditionally been acknowledged or taken advantage of by Members of the House of Commons.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You helpfully reminded us at the beginning of your statement of the size of the majority against in the vote that took place last week. I think that most observers would feel that, for that to be turned around and for the motion to pass, it would require a significant change. As I understand it from your ruling this afternoon, if, perhaps at the European Council in a few days’ time, a significant change could be achieved, you would allow a further meaningful vote on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman is very fair-minded and, what is more, he is perceptive. I think I hinted at that, perhaps not with the crystal clarity that he has brought to bear on the subject, but in essence, he is right: if there is a substantially different proposition put as a result of revisions sought and obtained and new agreement reached, that would constitute a new proposition to be put to the House. I would have to look at the particulars and I am not committing to a specific at this moment, but I think nobody could outdo the right hon. Gentleman today by way of reasonableness.
A Kingston knight, no less. I call Sir Edward Davey.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In our current constitutional crisis, I welcome your reaffirmation of the rule of law in this House—namely, “Erskine May”—and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Given the gravity of the situation, though, could you enlighten the House as to whether “Erskine May” makes any provision for a Speaker’s Conference to bring together all parties in the House under your chairmanship to try to find a way forward?
There can always be Speaker’s Conferences, though I must say—I do not direct this particularly at this Government at all; it is a wider observation—that it is a perhaps curious and quaint fact that ordinarily, Speaker’s Conferences are convened at the instigation of the Government of the day. Indeed, I recall a particular occasion some years ago when I had some interest in the possibility of a Speaker’s Conference on aspects of parliamentary power. If I said to the right hon. Gentleman that the reaction to my suggestion at the time from the then Leader of the House was not wildly enthusiastic, I think that I would be somewhat understating the position. But that was then, and maybe the new Leader of the House, or relatively new Leader of the House, who has been a notable reformer in other respects, will be seized by the salience of what the right hon. Gentleman has commended to the House and will feel that she could have a key role in initiating such an important constitutional development. If she did, I would be perfectly willing to play ball with it. I have no idea; it is not something she and I have discussed, but you never know.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just want to be very clear: I am indeed a reforming Leader of the House of Commons. For me, treating colleagues with courtesy and respect is at the forefront of that reform. Any Speaker’s council would have to have that at its heart, and I simply would not be confident that that would be the case.
Well, so be it. I treat the House with respect. I have treated its Members with respect. I chaired a previous Speaker’s Conference, and there was no criticism of the way in which I did so. One reason why the Leader of the House might not be well versed in that particular Speaker’s Conference and in a position to make a judgment about my chairmanship of it is very simply that it took place before the right hon. Lady entered the House of Commons.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This House runs on conventions, as you have already made clear in your statement today. One of those conventions is that Treasury Benchers always tell Opposition Front Benchers of statements they are going to make. To clarify, can you confirm to the House that you not only informed the Leader of the House of your intention to make this statement but told her the contents of your statement?
I absolutely cannot confirm anything of the sort. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that his understanding about what might happen between the usual channels is one thing; that absolutely does not apply to Speaker’s statements. If the hon. Gentleman—
The hon. Gentleman shrugs and says, “Why not?” That has never been the case. The Speaker of the House makes statements to the House at a time when the Speaker of the House thinks that they will be of interest and benefit to the House. I am under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to pre-announce that statement, either to the Leader of the House or to the shadow Leader of the House, and I did not do so. If the hon. Gentleman—a keen student of parliamentary procedure—is offended by that fact, well, I am sorry, and he is of course welcome to be offended, but there is absolutely no breach of parliamentary protocol or etiquette whatsoever. That is the reality, and I have explained the position in terms clear and unmistakable.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you confirm that a meaningful vote would be intrinsically different if it included the provision for a confirmatory vote by way of a public vote?
Again, I would have to look at the particulars. I would look at the specifics; I would assess what was being proposed; and I would make a judgment about it. I prefer at this stage to rest on what I have already said about the principle that something should be different, not the same or substantially the same. I would have to look at the specifics in the circumstances of the time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are now 11 days, six hours, 21 minutes and about 40 seconds from leaving. This can be described as nothing other than a constitutional crisis. Can you advise us how we can bring forward an emergency motion on revoking article 50?
Emergency motions—I say this as much for the benefit of people observing our proceedings as for Members of the House—are capable of being requested under Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady will know that any Member can apply for the right to conduct a Standing Order No. 24 debate on a motion and that that request is, in the first instance, submitted to me. If I decide that the application can be made in a speech of up to three minutes, it is made on the Floor of the House. If I decide that the application is valid, and the application is supported, the debate can take place, and there is nothing to stop such debates taking place in the ensuing days. Many have taken place before—obviously, on nothing like the scale of urgent questions—and I have no reason to suppose that it will be different in the future.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Does the House have the authority to suspend the Standing Orders that prevent motions from being brought back to the House in the same form?
The Clerk of the House has confirmed my own understanding, which is that the House is the custodian of its own Standing Orders. The Standing Orders are a matter for the House, and they can be changed. That has happened before, and it could conceivably happen again. So the answer to the central inquiry is yes.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there any definition, in terms of precedent, of the meaning of the term “substantial change”? If there is not, can you confirm that that does not preclude you from making a novel decision?
I am sorry of this disappoints the hon. Gentleman, but it is context-specific, and it is a judgment for the Chair. The Chair seeks to make a judgment on the basis of what will be in the interests of the House. I do not think that I can say fairer than that, or say anything different. I hope that that is useful to colleagues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you clarify a point? Is it the case that you have not ruled out a third meaningful vote, and it is just a matter of that vote’s being conditional on other matters applying, in the motion as well as in the substance?
I think that I explained the position to the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). It depends on the specific terms of what is proposed. Forgive me—I do not mean this discourteously in any way—but I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here throughout our exchanges. Maybe he was; I do not know. What I was seeking to convey, however, was that a new proposition could be put, but the convention would militate against the same, or substantially the same, proposition being put. So I am not closing the door, and, indeed, I specifically said towards the end of my statement that this ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject. It is simply meant to indicate the test that the Government must meet for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held during the current parliamentary Session. I do not see that I can expand on that, nor should I be required today to do so.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I think that the Speaker decides. Would your advice to those who are, perhaps, becoming exercised about this be, “Don’t panic.”?
I am always inclined to say, “Don’t panic.” I am not in the business of panicking myself. I think I can safely say that I have never lost a wink of sleep over any work-related matter. There is no merit or purpose in doing so. I think that we should approach these matters with calm, deploy reason, and seek to make sensible judgments, not just in our own interests and the interests of the House, but in the interests of the people whom we are sent here to represent. I have always done that, and I am sure that that is what colleagues think it is right to do, including, most certainly, the hon. Gentleman.
I am most grateful to colleagues for the interest that they have shown and the inquiries that they have put, and I thank them for their involvement.