House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has scuppered any chance of another Commons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal before Thursday’s EU summit.
Mr Bercow ruled that the Prime Minister cannot bring her EU Withdrawal Agreement back before MPs unless it is substantially different from the package which was decisively defeated last week.
The Speaker’s ruling, announced in an unexpected statement to the Commons, throws a further obstacle in the way of the Prime Minister’s scramble to get a deal agreed by the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.
Downing Street has indicated that Mrs May will not table a motion on a third “meaningful vote” ahead of Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels unless there is a realistic prospect of securing a majority in the Commons.
If no vote takes place over the coming days, she is expected to ask the leaders of the remaining 27 EU members for a lengthy extension to the two-year Article 50 negotiation process, delaying Brexit for months or even years beyond March 29.
The PM had been expected to then make a last-ditch attempt to get her deal through the Commons next week, effectively presenting MPs with a choice between the Withdrawal Agreement which they have already rejected twice, or a long wait for Brexit.
But Mr Bercow’s ruling could make that plan impossible, unless Mrs May is able to negotiate some change to her deal before presenting it once more to MPs.
A Number 10 spokesman said: “We note the Speaker’s statement. This is something that requires proper consideration.”
Solicitor General Robert Buckland said the Government was facing a “major constitutional crisis” and that Mr Bercow’s intervention would have “huge reverberations” for the Brexit process.
He suggested ministers may need to prorogue Parliament and call a new session in order to get round the ruling.
“There are ways around this,” he told BBC News.
“Frankly we could have done without this. Now we have this ruling to deal with, it is clearly going to require a lot of very fast but very deep thought in the hours ahead.”
The Speaker cited the Commons rulebook Erskine May as he set out a convention dating back to 1604 that a defeated motion cannot be brought back in the same form during the course of a parliamentary session.
He said it was within the rules for a second vote to be held on the Withdrawal Agreement in March, because it had been substantially revised – including by the addition of three new documents – since its defeat by 230 votes in January.
“If the Government wishes to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the House on March 12, this would be entirely in order,” said Mr Bercow.
“What the Government cannot legitimately do is 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.”
Mr Bercow was asked by Commons Brexit Committee chairman Hilary Benn whether there would have to be “new political agreement” for the Government to bring its deal back before MPs.
He replied that “in all likelihood” this would be needed.
The change must be “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 UK”, he told MPs.
Mrs May’s hopes of rallying Conservative MPs behind her agreement were dealt a blow by 23 Leave-backing backbenchers who signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph backing a no-deal Brexit.
And former foreign secretary Boris Johnson called on the PM to postpone any further vote on her deal, warning it would be “absurd” to bring it back to the Commons without first securing change from Brussels.
Discussions were continuing between the Government and DUP over the course of Monday, including over the question of how the Northern Ireland Assembly could block any new regulatory barriers to trade with the rest of the UK.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed ministers would want to be confident they had a “realistic prospect” of success before deciding to call a third vote.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers, said there were some “cautious signs of encouragement”, but added: “There is a lot more work to do.”
Under House of Commons rules, the Government must table a motion by the close of business on Tuesday if a vote is to be held before the Prime Minister goes to the summit in Brussels.
Leading Tory Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would wait to see what the DUP decided before finally making up his mind which way to vote.
He warned that if a third meaningful vote was lost, it might mean the UK never leaves the EU.
“If it is thwarted now, no-one is ever going to allow us another chance to have a vote,” Mr Rees-Mogg told LBC radio.
“The whole weight of British establishment opinion will prevent that ever happening again.”
He added: “As long as people think we can get to no deal, they will vote the deal down. That is my position.”
The 10 DUP MPs are viewed by Downing Street as pivotal, not just for the votes they provide but the influence of their stance on Conservative Eurosceptics.
DUP MLA Jim Wells denied that the party was taking part in a financial “auction” for its support, insisting that “money is not being discussed on the table at the moment”.
Mr Wells told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We still have a huge difficulty with the backstop, because we see it as a waiting room for constitutional change.
“We could find ourselves locked in there forever in effect, and once you get in you can never get out. We have to have a mechanism where we can escape the backstop.”