Speaker cornered?

Update 13 November: As predicted, the Tory awkward squad has weighed in with two amendments to the Lansley-Brake proposal. They want to give the Speaker to power to call "any" amendments rather than "upto three". And they then make a consequential change to allow "subsequent" amendments to be called… I'm told this may be debated (probably alongside a proposal to amend the workings of the Backbench Business Committee, where again Messrs' Lansley and Brake are seeking to delete the interesting bits) in December.

Is the government about to put Speaker Bercow "back in his box?"

Back in May, his decision to allow a fourth amendment to the Queen's Speech regretting the lack of an EU membership referendum, proposed by rebel backbenchers, infuriated the government whips.

The Speaker stretched the wording of the current standing orders, perhaps to the point of snapping it, to allow that amendment to be debated - and the private member's bill on the referendum now before the House was the direct result.

Now, lurking in the recesses of the latest Commons order paper is an amendment to Commons standing orders which would limit him to three amendments again.

It's proposed by the Leader of the Commons Andrew Lansley, and co-signed by his Lib Dem deputy, Tom Brake.

It's worth underlining just how important the ruling, back in May, was to the course of politics since.

The show of backbench support for a referendum that resulted forced David Cameron into a new EU strategy based around what became the James Wharton bill, the proposal for a membership referendum in 2017, currently inching its way through report stage.

It just goes to show how important the interpretation of the rules of debate can be.

At the time the government protests were, with gritted teeth, scrupulously polite.

Andrew Lansley made an opaque inquiry about Mr Speaker's "application of the terms of standing order 33," and received the following, rather Jesuitical answer: "….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 SO33 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…"

In other words the Speaker was stretching the rules to accommodate a new multi-party politics - at least in Queen's Speech debates.

Behind the scenes, the government was seething.

And they have continued to seethe.

The amendment down today is their revenge.

Now, as one Commons source told me, the powers that be are seeking to "put him back in his box".

To which a government source added the suggestion that the lid should be "firmly nailed down".

Not everyone agrees.

The two main groups of beneficiaries of the May ruling were backbench Tory euro-sceptics, who were given the chance to put their point of view, to considerable effect, and the nationalist parties, who were not bumped from the debate to make way.

Both are now seething in their turn.

There's talk of an amendment to the government motion going down, to call for the Speaker to be given discretion to allow five amendments to a Queen's Speech, or even ten.

We don't yet have a date for a debate on the changes proposed by the government, and there is now no chance of them being waved through unnoticed.

So at some point we will get a debate which will test just how much appetite the current generation of MPs have for opening up their rules and procedures.

Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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