John Bercow is a curious little poppet. He’s come a long way since his spotty days of undergraduate hangem’n’floggery in the Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation banned by Norman Tebbit for being too right-wing. Today he’s more likely to be found welcoming one acronym or another to Parliament or accosting the word ‘progressive’ and roughing it up.
Bercow, now handsomely perched in the gods of the liberal establishment, has defied the axiom that we become more conservative as we grow older. (Then again, if you start out in the Monday Club and keep going right, you’ll end up in Rhodesia by Friday.)
We need to understand this change of heart to appreciate the splenetic fury he inspires in the worst, most tribal brand of Tory. That rage is boiling over again, occasioned by two unfortunate incidents that have nonetheless been blown out of all proportion by the Speaker’s unyielding critics.
Bercow’s Love Actually moment over a proposed state visit by Donald Trump made headlines here and in the United States. The Speaker told MPs he did not wish to invite the President to Parliament, citing ‘our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary’. (The latter remark he directed, pointedly, at the Tory benches.)
Since any invitation to Westminster Hall or the Royal Gallery would have to be agreed by Bercow, his counterpart in the upper chamber, and Lord Great Chamberlain, that was that. The Speaker had stuck one thumb in the eye of Donald Trump and the other in the eye of the Government. The Labour benches erupted in cheers and the Scottish Nationalists broke into applause, a tic that continues to bemuse Westminster watchers but makes more sense if you’ve seen their evangelical mega-rally politics in action north of the border.
Tories were less impressed. Former minister James Duddridge tabled a motion of no confidence in the Speaker, calling his comments ‘wholly inappropriate’ and his position ‘untenable‘. It’s unlikely the numbers are there to pass Duddridge’s motion but he believes ‘the majority if not all of the Cabinet’ will vote for it. Even with the support of a majority of MPs, that would deal a grievous blow to Bercow’s standing and that of his office. The Government would in effect be declaring him the Speaker for the Opposition benches alone and not Parliament as a whole.
The revelation that Bercow voted Remain in the EU referendum, information volunteered during a question and answer event at Reading University earlier this month, has only emboldened those seeking to remove him. His handling of the Trump invitation left a lot to be desired and the decision to share his electoral preferences was ill-advised. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is about high constitutional principle or a desire to maintain the integrity of the Speaker’s chair.
Duddridge gave the game away when he tagged this onto his charge sheet of Bercow’s offences:
‘This has been happening more and more often from this modernising Speaker. This is perhaps the straw that has broken the camel’s back.’
This *modernising* Speaker. That’s what this destabilisation campaign is about. Bercow has rubbed too many Tories up the wrong way with his reforming zeal, doing away with the traditional Speaker’s robes and announcing his intention to do the same with the wigs worn by Commons clerks. He has made Parliament more inclusive and has even opened a long overdue creche on the estate. In any other legislature, this would be cause for celebration but for certain Tories, these changes are too emblematic of Bercow’s political proximity to the Labour Party, until recently the custodians of modernisation. He crossed the floor, in loyalty if not in deed, and for that he will never be forgiven.
Sensible Conservatives should stand up to this vendetta and defend the independence of the Speaker. For it is this partisan putsch, not Bercow’s injudicious remarks, that are undermining the neutrality of the Speaker. There is little enough confidence in political institutions without reckless revenge being allowed to promote cynicism about a respected public office.
In the chair, Bercow has achieved the balance struck by the best Speakers: He is part chief executive, part trade union rep for the backbenches. This is the Speaker who faced down Theresa May when the then Home Secretary tried to limit debate on the European Arrest Warrant in 2014. He has granted urgent questions liberally to bring ministers to book at the despatch box. He is a martinet to windy frontbenchers, cutting off their perorations to allow more time for those in the cheap seats. If he is an antagonist of the executive, it is because he is a champion of the House. One may disapprove of a tart putdown here or an attention-seeking pronouncement there — the Speaker who speaks less does so with more authority — but our politics would be duller without its characters, attractive and less so.
Dicey believed the Speaker should maintain ‘a judicial and therefore impartial character’ but feared that, while no ‘body of English gentlemen will wish to be presided over by a rogue’ they would come one day ‘to desire a Speaker who is not a judge but is an honest partisan’. Bercow is being censured not for partiality but for a lack of it.
Bercow is the first Jewish Speaker and almost certainly the first whose father drove a taxi for a living. This is not special pleading; it is a hint at the fibre of the man and the experiences that have shaped his character. When he rebukes braying parliamentarians for repelling the public, it is because he has some sense of attitudes beyond SW1. There are a great many angry people — truth be told, angry men — in politics at the moment. Things aren’t working out as smoothly as they had hoped (and promised) and Someone Must Be To Blame. They lash out at the media, the experts, the elites — convenient targets who tell inconvenient truths. The Speaker must not be sacrificed to the paroxysms of Parliament’s angry men.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail