Commons Speaker John Bercow’s decision to block Theresa May from holding another vote on her beleagured Brexit deal amounts to constitutional vandalism, a former Downing Street aide has said.
Nikki da Costa, the prime minister’s ex-director of legislative affairs, said Bercow was “consistently inconsistent” with his rulings, and accused him of ignoring his duty to be impartial.
Da Costa also revealed that in her time as Number 10’s parliamentary expert, she was worried the speaker may use his casting vote in the event of a tied Commons division to express his own views and seek to scupper Brexit.
She told HuffPost’s Commons People podcast that the government has long found Bercow “deeply, deeply annoying” but acknowledged that he “operated largely within the rules” until late last year.
But the speaker crossed a line when he ripped up precedent to allow Tory MP Dominic Grieve to pass an amendment to dramatically alter the Brexit process in the Commons, da Costa said.
“What we have seen more recently is a trend basically of saying actually where I don’t want the rules to apply, they won’t apply.
“Earlier this year – precedent doesn’t matter, we can change precedent, I’m not bound by that, it’s up to me as speaker.
“And just this week, a very lengthy exposition on Erskine May, the historic precedent etcetera.
“To me that reads as partiality.
“A lovely phrase given to me by a former spad (special adviser) recently – he is consistently inconsistent – and as such I would say yes he does vandalise.”
Da Costa said her long-held fear that Bercow could cast a tiebreaker vote in line with his beliefs was nearly realised last week when a cross-party move to allow parliament to take control of Brexit was defeated by the government with a majority of just two.
“The tradition is that (the Speaker) should vote according to the status quo but Erskine May further clarifies that the Speaker, as any MP, may vote as his conscience dictates, and we all know where this Speaker will go with that,” she said.
“There was a severe moment of pain last week when I thought we were actually in that situation.
“I have been aware of it in government and painfully aware outside.”
Da Costa also lifted the lid on her time in Downing Street, revealing that the government enlisted influential Tory backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin to test the mood of the party and report back on what was possible to achieve with Brexit.
But she said Letwin managed to effectively convince the government to rule out certain options, accusing him of contributing to the mess parliament now finds itself in, while he now backs efforts to remove control from the government and soften Brexit by building support for a so-called Common Market 2.0 alternative plan.
“My frustration with Oliver Letwin is this is the man that the chief whip consulted time and time again and sort of co-opted as some sort of substitute minister, and many things were ruled out on Oliver’s say-so, contributing to the situation that we are now in,” she said.
“And therefore I’m sorry when Oliver Letwin comes forward with something, I’m not particularly minded to say that is the perfect judgment.”
Da Costa meanwhile warned that MPs may find themselves voting on the order to remove Brexit day from UK law hours before the deadline on March 29 if May’s plan to seek a delay comes to fruition.
“If the EU have only signed off (on a delay) in principle and not formally, the statutory instrument has to wait until after that formal decision.
“There is the rumour at the moment of an emergency (EU) summit on March 28, then actually you would have to have that decision and bounce it straight into the Commons and into the Lords then.
“Worst case scenario, you are laying that SI on the night of the 28th and voting on the 29th, I’m sorry, I just want to flag that.”