Editorial | A lesson for Pearnel Charles from Speaker Bercow
We don’t know how closely, or if at all, Pearnel Charles, the Speaker of Jamaica’s Parliament, or any aspirants for the post, have followed the machinations of the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom House of Commons. Hopefully, they, and for that matter, the entire Jamaican legislature, have followed it.
For the Brexit process in the House has delivered a number of significant teaching moments, but none more profound than Speaker John Bercow’s intervention on Monday. For a Jamaican Parliament that is inevitably supine to the executive, he demonstrated again, as the Commons had done in a series of votes, that even in the Westminster system, legislators, if they have the will, can exert independence.
Unless there is the expected late-hour stay this week by the remaining 27 members of the club, Britain will exit the European Union (EU) on March 29 without an agreement on what kind of future relationship the former partners should have on a range of issues, ranging from trade to security.
This might suit the Brexit hardliners in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory party and others on the Eurosceptic right. But there are many others in Britain, including many who support leaving the EU, who insist on a structured Brexit, underpinned by an interim agreement that ensures orderly trade and other relations, while a new long-term pact is negotiated.
The problem for Ms May is that no one likes the exit deal her government has negotiated. Those given to remaining, or having close to ties to the EU, bemoan that it fails to provide for the deeper relationship they would prefer, while Brexiters fear that the Irish ‘backstop’, aimed at preventing the need for a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland, risks keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU in perpetuity, if no alternative is found to the Irish border issue.
The Irish question is important because of the concern that a hard border between the two territories could lead to a return of sectarian violence before the 1992 Good Friday peace settlement between republicans who wanted to unite Ireland and those who want Northern Ireland to remain British.
Last year, Parliament, in a series of votes, insisted that it be given a say on any exit deal Ms May negotiated with the EU. So, twice in recent weeks, the Commons overwhelmingly rejected the package that her government placed on the table. Further, the House recently approved a motion that would preclude Britain crashing out of the EU without an agreement, without the specific say-so of the Commons.
With the EU so far failing to agree to any substantial changes to the negotiated exit deal, Ms May’s strategy has been to run down the clock, hoping to force a majority of legislators, despite misgivings, to flock to her deal, rather than face the prospect of a no-deal crash out of the EU. Her intention, therefore, was to bring back her package this week for a so-called third ‘meaningful vote’. Until Speaker Bercow’s intervention turned things topsy-turvy.
Having been asked earlier by a member of parliament about the legality of a recurring vote, Mr Bercow, quoting Erskine May, the authority on Westminster parliamentary procedure, held on Monday that “a motion or amendment which is the same in substance as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward during the same session”.
In essence, if Ms May wanted to bring back a Brexit motion, it couldn’t be “substantially the same as the first”, and the arbiter of whether there was substantial change would be the Speaker.
The British Government is faced with a major challenge in how to proceed. With regard to Jamaica, it is significant that May is the procedural authority relied on by our Parliament.
Further, it is the norm for our Speakers and members of the majority to act in concert with, and seemingly at the direction of, the Government and the prime minister.
In Westminster, there is an overlap between the legislature and the executive, but, as Speaker Bercow demonstrated, Parliament is ultimately supreme – once it knows it.