As soon as John Bercow uttered the words, he knew they would be explosive.
In ruling that Theresa May couldn’t bring an unchanged Brexit deal back to parliament for a third time, the Speaker of the Commons sparked shock in Number 10 and delight among the prime minister’s critics.
Within seconds, one minister WhatsApped a colleague with a simple message: “WTF?” A Labour aide said simply: “Christ, he’s done it!” Downing Street staff, preparing for their afternoon briefing of journalists, were dumbfounded.
The initial response from the PM’s official spokesman was as frosty as it was pithy: “The Speaker didn’t give forewarning as to the content [of the statement], or indeed the fact he was making one.”
As the verdict reverberated through Westminster and outside (the words ‘Bercow’, ‘Speaker’ and ‘Theresa May’ were all trending on Twitter), Bercow clearly felt his statement was part of a long, historic arc. He cited a previous constitutional precedent from April 2, 1604, and went on to claim four different Speakers had endorsed it in the four hundred years since.
Veteran Brexiteer Sir Bill Cash couldn’t resist the opening: “I wonder whether there is any connection between that and very shortly afterwards the Gunpowder Plot.” The guffaws of his fellow pro-Leave Tory MPs confirmed that they were happy with the ruling, and Cash declared the Speaker’s statement “makes an enormous amount of sense”.
Labour MPs who want alternatives to May’s plans were overjoyed too, believing Bercow had thrown a hand grenade into the whole parliamentary process and made a longer delay to Brexit inevitable. The only MPs who weren’t happy were the ministers and whips on the frontbench, frantically trying to recalibrate what on earth the PM’s next move could be.
The normally unflappable minister Rory Stewart couldn’t hide his irritation, comparing Bercow’s semantic gymnastics and long-winded statement to a nursery rhyme character....