Theresa May, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, gestures while speaking during a general-election campaign event in Nottingham, U.K.,(Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

May Prepares to Seek Long Brexit Delay as Speaker Scuppers Plans

(Bloomberg) --

Theresa May looked set to seek a long extension to the U.K.’s European Union membership after the House of Commons speaker torpedoed her plan to win Parliamentary approval for her deal to leave the bloc.

Officials privately accused Speaker John Bercow of over-reaching his powers to help pro-EU politicians deliver a softer divorce and said another vote on May’s agreement is now unlikely before Thursday’s European Union summit, when the prime minister will have to ask for a delay.

May Prepares to Seek Long Brexit Delay as Speaker Scuppers Plans

May was given no warning of Bercow’s announcement Monday afternoon, in which he effectively banned her from bringing her deal back to Parliament for a third time unless it changes significantly. Her office issued a terse statement saying the move “requires proper consideration,” but the anger among government officials was palpable.

Bercow set a new test for the prime minister to meet if she wants to ask Parliament to vote again on the agreement she spent two years negotiating with the EU. The deal must be “fundamentally different,” he said, and “in all likelihood” that means something new must be agreed with the bloc.

The problem for May is that negotiations have finished and time has almost run out before the U.K. is due to leave the EU on March 29. The pound fell as Bercow spoke, before paring losses.

‘Breaking Point’

A delay will potentially give time to May’s opponents to force a rethink of the divorce, and the government sees the move as another attempt by Bercow to frustrate Brexit by helping Parliament seize control of the process, according to two officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

The prime minister’s team were taking legal advice as they considered their response to the ruling, which was based on a 415-year-old Parliamentary convention.

“The ties of the constitution are being stretched to the breaking point, and I don’t want to be part of the generation that breaks those ties,” Solicitor General Robert Buckland told BBC TV. “That’s why we have to be extremely careful where we tread.”

May Prepares to Seek Long Brexit Delay as Speaker Scuppers Plans

Likely Outcome

May had been working to put her deal back to the House of Commons for approval by Wednesday, with a vote penciled in for Tuesday. Bercow’s ruling cuts May’s chances of getting it approved on this timescale, and perhaps at all.

The premier will head to Brussels for the summit Thursday and now seems likely to have to ask EU leaders to give her an extension to the deadline, the officials said. It could potentially last many months, or even more than a year.

The Sun newspaper cited unidentified government sources saying that May is drafting a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, formally requesting a delay of 9 to 12 months.

One EU official said leaders would be reluctant to thrash out a new agreement at the summit, as matters are usually wrapped up by more junior officials beforehand. That means an extension is the most likely outcome, he said.

While the EU has ruled out reopening the divorce deal itself, he said the bloc could consider changes to the separate agreement that sets out future ties.

‘A Necessary Rule’

In his statement, Bercow invoked the rule -- dating to 1604 -- that the same motion cannot be put to a vote repeatedly. “It is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and the proper respect for the decisions which it takes. Decisions of the House matter,” he said. “They have weight. In many cases they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents.”

May’s deal was first rejected on Jan. 15 by a record 230 votes. She then reopened talks with the EU to secure further legal assurances on how the Irish border backstop guarantee would work. The premier then put the revised deal to another vote on March 12, when it was defeated by 391 votes to 242.

Bercow said he had allowed the Commons to vote for a second time on May’s deal because it was a substantially different proposal, with new legal texts for MPs to consider. They have reached their decision on it, he said, suggesting that even a new legal opinion from the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would not be enough to allow another vote if the deal itself is unchanged.

May Prepares to Seek Long Brexit Delay as Speaker Scuppers Plans

“What the government cannot 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,” Bercow said. “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 in order for me to rule that a third ‘meaningful vote’ can legitimately be held in this parliamentary session.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.