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17th century British parliamentary rule upends Brexit proceedings

John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, dealt a potentially fatal blow to Prime Minister Theresa May's ailing Brexit deal on Monday, saying the government couldn't make lawmakers vote on the same Brexit deal that has already been rejected twice.Alastair Grant/AP/File 2018/AP Pool via AP

BRUSSELS — British Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to steer her nation out of the European Union remained in a state of chaos Tuesday, as she struggled to get around a shock parliamentary ruling that may force her to beg fellow European leaders for a long divorce delay.

May huddled with her advisers for hours to try to devise a new strategy for getting lawmakers to sign onto the divorce deal before Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU on March 29. Her old plan - not that it appeared popular enough to succeed - was upended Monday by the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, when he said he would not permit a third vote on a divorce deal that British lawmakers have already twice rejected.


May’s top lieutenants acknowledged publicly that Bercow’s unexpected announcement means she is likely to go mostly empty-handed to a crucial EU summit, starting Thursday, where the remaining 27 EU leaders will mull how long to let Britain stay in the club beyond this month. May might propose a time frame in advance: One plan floated in the British press was a long delay of at least nine months.

‘‘For my Brexit colleagues, I think they can see that there is a growing risk of no Brexit,’’ Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC. He said that May might still try to hold another vote before the Brexit deadline but noted that either way, she will have to seek an extension from fellow EU leaders.

On Monday, Bercow invoked a parliamentary convention dating to 1604 that he said banned putting a measure to a vote in Parliament if it has already been rejected in the same session of the legislature. May had hoped that Brexiteer lawmakers would be sufficiently spooked by the prospect of getting stuck in the EU to pass her plan on the third try.


One way to short-circuit Bercow’s injunction would be to declare an end to the current session and start a new one, legal experts said. But that would require summoning Queen Elizabeth II for some ceremonies, a step Barclay said the leaders would not force her to take.

The spinning of wheels in London left European leaders in disbelief at a process many of them already felt had hit rock bottom.

‘‘I will fight until the last hour of March 29 so that we still come to an orderly exit,’’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. ‘‘I’ll admit that I wasn’t actively familiar with the rules of the British Parliament from the 17th century.’’