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Today, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK allowed an amendment by MP Dominic Grieve to a business motion. This decision has been discussed as being very controversial where "a series of Conservatives argued that Commons precedent dictated that business motions could only be changed by ministers." (Source)

I would like to know more about the background. The rules that govern debate and law-making in the UK Parliament seem quite complex.

Which rule has John Bercow allegedly broken? How is this rule meant to be broken by him? Why could he go through with it nevertheless?

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    Answering this is made needlessly difficult by Parliament keeping its operations manual "Erskine May" off the Internet. – pjc50 Jan 9 at 17:12
  • @pjc50 I'm fairly sure that the UK government don't own the copyright on that. – origimbo Jan 9 at 17:14
  • @pjc50 And here I thought that half of the UK government ran on "unspoken rules" loaded with traditions and rituals. – David S Jan 9 at 17:41
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    @DavidS it may look a lot like Mornington Crescent, especially at the moment, but there are some written rules :) – pjc50 Jan 9 at 17:50
  • @origimbo Latest edition (2011) appears to be Parliamentary Copyright, or possibly copyright owned by the (former?) Clerk of the House of Commons. Either way, £439 if you want a hard copy shop.parliament.uk/products/9781405751063 – owjburnham Jan 22 at 11:58
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The original business motion, which set out the schedule and rules for the Meaningful Vote on the Brexit deal (item 5 in the Votes and Proceedings from 4 Dec 2018) states that:

(9) No motion to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown; and the question on any such motion shall be put forthwith.

This was interpreted to mean that only the government could vary the details of this business motion, and this is standard practice for such motions.

On 9 Jan 2019, the government put before the House a second business motion which varied the first one, assuming that this could not be amended. To their surprise, Dominic Grieve MP was permitted to submit an amendment to this.

The Speaker of the House of Commons has the final say on whether amendments (whether to motions, or bills) are acceptable, and so was challenged on his decision in this matter. He said (emphasis mine):

the motion in the Prime Minister’s name is indeed a variation of the order agreed by the House on 4 December. Under paragraph (9) of that order, the question on any motion to vary the order “shall be put forthwith.” I interpret that to mean that there can be no debate, but I must advise the House that the terms of the order do not say that no amendment can be selected or moved. I cannot allow debate, but I have selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield.

In response to another question, he said:

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a motion and said that no motion in this context, for the purposes of precis, may be moved other than by a Minister of the Crown. ‘Tis so. We are not treating here of a motion but of an amendment to a motion.

To summarise: the controversy is that the original business motion stated that it couldn't be varied by anyone other than the government, via a second business motion. However, in the Speaker's opinion, an amendment to that second business motion was not explicitly ruled out, so that is acceptable.


Later in that exchange, it was also suggested that there is a precedent that business motions cannot be amended. However, that appears less clear, not least because the motion from 4 Dec 2018 was itself amended at the time.


EDIT: This article from UCL's Constitution Unit provides further background on this issue, and Commons procedure in general.

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    @Trilarion: absolutely. His interpretation was somewhat unexpected, to say the least - to experts as well as laymen! It's alleged elsewhere in that exchange that the Commons Clerks may have advised him that his interpretation was incorrect, and that he overruled them. As for being political, the Speaker is supposed to be non-political, and part of the furore is that Brexiteers see his actions as being pro-Remain. He's countered that by saying that he's just ensuring that Parliament is able to have its say to the fullest extent. – Steve Melnikoff Jan 10 at 9:25
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    The Speaker is not normally a political role, because "normally" the government has enough of a majority that Parliament is a formality. However, Parliament is supposed to be supreme. The intent seems reasonable: preventing the government's traditional control over the order of business from being used to prevent Parliament from having a debate on an urgent matter until it's too late. – pjc50 Jan 10 at 10:18
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    Presumably, if the Leader of H.M.Opposition has the power to put down a motion of "no-confidence in the Government", the same Opposition leader, could put down a MOTION OF CONFIDENCE in the Speaker. It may have been helpful had Jeremy Corbyn done that yesterday. But the fact that the vote on the amendment was carried with a majority of 11 votes, is surely sufficient to absolve the Speaker of any wrongdoing. Clearly the Commons, at who's behest the Speaker holds office has confidence in him - irrespective of what the tabloid headlines are screaming this morning. – WS2 Jan 10 at 16:04
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    @WS2: the Leader of the Opposition does not (most of the time) have the power to add motions to the schedule; only the government can do that. However, there is a convention that if he requests a Vote of No Confidence in the Government, the Government will put it on the schedule on his behalf. Note that this only applies to a VoNC in the Government. His recent attempt to have a VoNC in the Prime Minister has not been scheduled, and probably never will be. – Steve Melnikoff Jan 10 at 16:07
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    Choosing the amendments that Parliament can vote upon is a great power for its Speaker similar to those powers of the Government to control the timetable of the Parliament. Should he use this power? Yes, of course, why else would it be given to him then. – Trilarion Jan 10 at 18:22

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