An important surprise
Mr Speaker Bercow has sprung quite an important surprise on the Commons.
He's allowed not two, but three amendments to the motion on the Queen's Speech to be voted on today. A slightly bemused Leader of the Commons, Andrew Lansley, politely asked if he would set out the "application of the terms of standing order 33 relating to the number of amendments that are selectable…"
Because up to now everyone (including me, in an earlier post) assumed the rules only allowed for two amendments to be called.
With the solemn glee of a Supreme Court judge extending the law, Mr Speaker was glad to oblige:
"….I believe that there is a need to interpret Standing Orders in way that facilitates the business of the House in a developing parliamentary context; conditions and expectations today are very different from those in October 1979 when that standing order was made - I have studied the wording of SO 33 very carefully - my interpretation is that the words that a further amendment in fifth line may be interpreted as meaning more than one amendment successively - in other words only one amendment is being moved at any time, once disposed of a further amendment may be called…"
This matters quite a lot. It seems the Speaker is not going to interpret the rules, in future, in a way that carves significant factions in the Commons, or the smaller parties, out of debates.
A number of viewpoints will in future be express-able in Commons debates. This is good news for the smaller parties, who've always hated the rules which always forced them to choose between Conservative and Labour views on any given subject, even if they had no particular liking for either.
But more than that, it's good news for significant factions in the House, who want a particular view debated…in this case, supporters of an EU referendum. The advent of the Backbench Business Committee has already allowed such groups to bring a non-binding motion to the floor of the House, but this ruling ratchets up their ability to get Commons votes that are a bit more than merely symbolic.
It looks a bit like preparation for more multi-party hung parliaments where there will be a series of competing viewpoints - who may want to say "maybe", or "yes but," rather than simply vote aye or no to every question.
It will be interesting to see if this precedent is extended beyond the once-a-year context of a Queen's Speech debate…the anxious look on Mr Lansley's face suggested that he, as the minister in charge of getting the government's legislation through the Commons, feared it might be.
I'm going to sniff around this a bit more and I'll report back…