As the United Kingdom braces itself for another bruising Brexit showdown in parliament, all eyes will fall on one politician – and this time it won’t be Prime Minister Theresa May.
The controversial Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is at the centre of what shape the Brexit debate takes, and could play a crucial role in determining the outcome.
He alone can chose how many amendments are chosen tonight (early tomorrow Australian time) to be debated by MPs who are seeking to alter Mrs May’s Brexit plan that was rejected a fortnight ago by a record-breaking 230 votes.
The proposed amendments could shape the next stage of negotiations with the European Union also as the countdown to the UK’s departure from the bloc on March 29 gets dangerously close.
They could sink or save Mrs May’s Brexit strategy.
But few in the UK Government have any confidence in Mr Bercow, 56, who has been Speaker since 1999.
Although he was elected a Conservative MP in 1997, relations between him and government colleagues are at an all-time low. He has been a thorn in the side of Ministers for months as he has tried to give backbenchers more of a voice in the hung parliament and ensure Ministers and the Prime Minister are held to account at Question Time.
Four years ago they tried to remove him, but he survived the attempt and remains in his job, even as bullying claims swirled around him which also led calls for him to quit.
But it is his shock moves around Brexit that has infuriated the government. This month he overturned his own clerks’ advice – and ancient parliamentary convention – by ruling that government business motions were amendable.
“If we were guided only by precedence, nothing in our procedures would ever change,” Mr Bercow said when explaining his decision.
As a result of his captain’s call the House of Commons ordered Mrs May to return three days after she lost the Brexit vote with a new way forward.
That decision provoked a furious response on the floor of parliament.
“Many of us will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs… is no longer neutral,” one said.
On the dramatic night the Brexit plan vote was lost he also refused to allow amendments that might have reduced the size of the humiliation to something less devastating.
To add to the drama, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, has clashed with him about his chairing of Brexit debates and accused him calling her a “stupid woman” in the chamber last year.
A senior Government source told London’s The Daily Telegraph: “History will judge him, there’s a range of amendments down on both sides of the debate and these should be represented in the selection he makes.
“To be seen as biased will damage the Speaker’s chair for far longer than he sits in it and would be quite a shameful legacy.”
Brandon Lewis, the Conservative party chairman, told The Telegraph he didn’t know which way Mr Bercow would go.
“Predicting what will happen in parliament and what the decision of the Speaker will be is not a game I am prepared to play.”
Anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit MPs are nervous.
A Remain-supporting minister said: “The Speaker could be a fly in the ointment and not call the amendment” while a Brexiteer Cabinet minister said: “It is essential that the Speaker protects the reputation of parliament in the country.”
A spokesman for Mr Bercow last month said he was “fair to all sides” and to different points of views within parties.
He has never allowed his personal views to influence his chairing of debates and statements.
“In fact, many would observe that his passionate view that all voices should be heard has led to statements and question times running on longer than anticipated.”
Ministers may get their own revenge though.
He is widely expected to stand down next year – although there are suggestions he may see the Brexit process through – but when he does go it is customary for a former Speaker to be appointed to the House of Lords.
But given the trouble he has caused him, Ministers may break with convention themselves and deny him a coveted upper house seat.
A new proposal submitted by Conservative legislator Graham Brady commits to backing Mrs May’s deal if the backstop is replaced by “alternative arrangements.”
Mr Brady said if the motion was approved by parliament, it would give Mrs May “enormous firepower” to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the Brexit divorce deal. But leading pro-Brexit Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg said he and his “hard Brexit”-backing allies would not support Mr Brady’s amendment because “it doesn’t say what (the backstop) would be replaced with.”
Last night, Mrs May signalled to her MPs they should support this amendment.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox says the government supports an amendment that rejects the so-called backstop that could keep Britain in a customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Instead, it directs the prime minister to seek “alternative arrangements.” Fox told the BBC on Tuesday the amendment offers the best chance for Britain to avoid leaving the EU without a deal on future relations.
Mr Brady’s backstop proposal is one of more than a dozen amendments proposed by UK politicians that aim to alter the course of Britain’s departure. Some others seek to rule out a no-deal Brexit so Britain can’t tumble out of the bloc on March 29 without an agreement in place to cushion the shock.
But even then, it won’t be easy to get Brexit done and dusted.
EU leaders insist they will not change the legally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Sabine Weyand, the Eu’s deputy negotiator, dismissed the move as “Groundhog Day” and said a hard border on the island of Ireland would not be avoided by a technology solution.
“We looked at every border on this earth, every border EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls.
“The negotiators have not been able to explain them to us and that’s not their fault; it’s because they don’t exist.”
And she warned of an accidental no-deal.
“There’s a very high risk of a crash out, not by design, but by accident.”