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Speaker cornered. Time for John Bercow to stand down as Speaker

June 24th, 2018

I have a soft spot for John Bercow, located somewhere around my wallet.  Over the years he has been a steady source of income for me as he has survived in office as Speaker, despite the noises off that regularly come from Conservative backwoodsmen harrumphing about his supposed rudeness and perceived unConservativeness.  Despite abundant evidence that only a small minority were willing to put their heads above the parapet, enough Bercowphobes were regularly willing to put money on the proposition that he would be ejected from the Speaker’s chair by given dates to enable me to make a decent income.

I’ve bet on John Bercow seeing out 2018 too. I expect I’ll collect on this bet. Yet here I am, arguing (against my own financial interest) that he should step down now. Why?

I need to start answering that question by explaining why I think John Bercow has been an excellent Speaker to this point. Contrary to popular belief, the Speaker’s role has never been just to be impartial. The Speaker’s role is to ensure that the legislature can effectively hold the executive to account.

John Bercow has consistently sided with the legislature against the executive, never giving it an easy ride. He has allowed Prime Minister’s Questions to expand well beyond the bounds of its original 30 minute duration – something which incidentally has allowed for more backbench voices to be heard in the prime Parliamentary slot. He has been very ready to accept urgent questions from MPs, requiring ministers to explain government policy. 

In short, John Bercow has done his best to make sure that the legislature has been given the fullest role in the governance of the country. In this regard, helped by two hung Parliaments and one tenuous overall majority, he has probably been the most effective Speaker in living memory. Some of his fondly-remembered predecessors were pretty poor at their job: their complaisance with government agendas was completely at odds with their responsibilities.

Unsurprisingly, this Speaker has not been popular with the government, who would much prefer a quiet life.  Both David Cameron and Theresa May have allowed rumours of their frustration with the Speaker to percolate into the wider public domain.  David Cameron was not above channelling animal spirits on the backbenches into frustration with the Speaker as a means of deflecting the awkward squad onto another target, in the same way that you might throw a stick for a highly strung Alsatian before it decided that it wanted to savage you.  The Speaker has been a harmless safety valve for that nervous energy.

So, why do I think John Bercow should step down now?  In short, he has reached the point on two fronts – the toxic culture of politics and Brexit – where he has become part of the problem. 

The usual suspects will be fixating about Brexit.  The Speaker is entitled to his personal views on the subject.  He was after all, like every other MP, originally elected on a political program.  Brexit, however, is unusually controversial even by the standards of most political topics.  And the government has just conceded, as part of the most controversial provision of the most controversial bill in years, that it will be for the Speaker to determine whether a motion when it is introduced by the Government under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is or is not in fact cast in neutral terms and hence whether the motion is or is not amendable. 

The compromise is opaque, the passions on both sides run high.  Different views have already been expressed about the scope of the Speaker’s powers.  The Speaker’s decision will be final and effectively unchallengeable.  There is a serious risk that Brexit will get even more divisive as one side or the other concludes that Parliamentary procedure has been used to deal a stab in the back.

Against this background, some Leavers have the concern that the Speaker will not be able to put aside his pungently-expressed personal views when exercising his powers.  Putting a “bollocks to Brexit” sticker on his car is like catnip to a group who are already apt to see vast conspiracies lurking round every corner.  It was gratuitous.  It was, it can now be seen with the benefit of hindsight, very ill-judged.

Caesar divorced his wife because she had to be above suspicion.  The House of Commons is entitled to have a Speaker who is above suspicion, particularly on such a highly charged subject.  John Bercow is not capable of being that man. 

British politics has a still bigger and more deeply rooted problem than Brexit: personal abuse of power. It is becoming increasingly apparent that politics has far too many people who feel able to take advantage of subordinates: see here and here for further depressing details.This is not confined to Westminster.

Only this week, an MSP was recommended for suspension for harassment and a Welsh Assembly report found that over a quarter of respondents had experienced inappropriate behaviour and over 30% had observed inappropriate behaviour. This is an endemic problem that urgently needs addressing.

As the legislature’s figurehead, the Speaker should be leading the charge to address this. Instead, he has been accused of bullying behaviour from several sources. He strongly denies the claims and he has to date successfully fought it even being investigated, benefiting from the casting vote of Sir Christopher Chope (more recently of infamy over the upskirting bill) blocking an inquiry.

It transpires that the Speaker had previously nominated Sir Christopher for his knighthood. Fairly or unfairly, it all looks a bit too cosy. Because John Bercow is at the centre of unresolved allegations, he cannot be the change that British politics urgently needs. Worse, that change cannot happen until he goes.

Speaker Bercow promised on his election that he would step down after nine years in office. He has evidently repented of that commitment but he should keep it. John Bercow has been a great Speaker. He should go now before he gets in the way of his role.

Alastair Meeks