The only alternative is a “no deal” Brexit, predicted to cause large economic damage to the UK and cause chaos at its borders – including food and medicine shortages.
The government has been preparing for another so-called ‘Meaningful Vote’ on the deal, which has seen two heavy defeats in the House of Commons. The vote had been expected within days.
Some Brexit MPs, and the Northern Irish DUP, had reportedly been wavering in their opposition to May’s deal as the deadline approached, fearing the consequences of a delay as support for Brexit wanes in public polls, and tempted by government inducements to back the deal.
The divorce deal, technically the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ agreed between the UK government and the EU in November, was designed to settle debts, separate EU and UK laws, keep the Ireland border free of new checkpoints and provide a long, smooth transition into the post-Brexit world for business and industry while a new trade and customs relationship is negotiated.
On Monday afternoon, Commons Speaker John Bercow gave a statement on whether he would allow another ‘Meaningful Vote’.
He cited parliamentary rules dating back to 1604 – the year before the Gunpowder Plot, as one MP pointed out.
Under those rules a motion that is “the same in substance” as a question that has already been decided cannot be brought back for a vote in the same session of Parliament.
“This convention is very strong and of long standing,” Bercow said, citing five previous occasions the then Speaker had ruled out motions.
“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,” he said.
It was not his “last word” on the subject, but indicated the test the government must pass in order to hold a third ‘Meaningful Vote’, he said.
“Part of my role is to speak truth to power,” he said, a tacit acknowledgement that the government would strongly object to his ruling.
“I have always done that and no matter what I always will. I have never been pushed around and I’m not going to start now.”
He said a “demonstrable change” to the government’s motion could not “simply [be] a change in an opinion” about the deal.
He gave the example of the second ‘Meaningful Vote’, which had come after new legally binding documents were agreed between the EU and UK clarifying parts of the deal.
Bercow also warned that other questions voted on recently – such as whether there should be a second Brexit referendum, or whether Parliament would sideline the government and hold a series of votes to determine the path of Brexit – must also pass the same test of being “substantially different” if they reappeared.
“Everything depends on the circumstances,” Bercow said, asked if a motion for a second referendum could be brought again as it was defeated “overwhelmingly” last week. “Is the proposition fundamentally the same or can it be argued it is a different proposition? I would have to look at that.”
There may be loopholes the government could exploit, according to commentators.
Some MPs asked if the government could end the parliamentary session and begin a new one. Solicitor-General Robert Buckland suggested this might be the solution.
And the Parliament could vote to explicitly set aside the precedent in this case, said Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government.
But this seemed unlikely as a number of MPs, including some pro-Brexit Conservatives, welcomed the ruling.
Owen Paterson said a third vote would have been a “pretty pointless exercise”.
Tory Brexiter Bill Cash said the ruling “makes an enormous amount of sense” and leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg said he was “delighted” the Speaker had followed precedent, “something I’m greatly in favour of”.
The most recent YouGov poll found that a new referendum would be considered a “good outcome” by 37 per cent of respondents, and a bad outcome by 44 per cent.
But only 21 per cent thought a “no-deal” Brexit would be a good outcome.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age