John Bercow has been an excellent, reforming Speaker of the House of Commons. He has supercharged backbenchers with greater use of urgent questions, for instance, and has also made Parliament more family-friendly. His pomposity while chairing Prime Minister’s Questions – the endless chiding about what the public might think of MPs’ behaviour, often accompanied with tedious jokes about certain members needing to take ‘a soothing medicament’ – was something even the MPs in question could forgive, given they had a Speaker who was making the legislature bolder.
But in the past few months, there has been a shift in the Parliamentary mood. Yes, Bercow still has many supporters on the Green Benches; indeed, some MPs claim that those supporters tend to get called earlier than they deserve in debates. And yes, some of the frustration that was directed at the Speaker in yesterday’s points of order fiesta came from people who were annoyed about Brexit, rather than those who were anxious about procedure. But the Speaker’s role has become more contested, and Bercow has found himself the subject of multiple rows. This has led to increasing calls for the Speaker to stand down.
Today at the Commons business session, Bercow clashed once again with Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom. Leadsom accused Bercow of changing the rules of the House ‘arbitrarily’ when he ruled yesterday that it was possible to amend a business motion. Unsurprisingly, the Speaker didn’t take too kindly to this, and hit back:
‘There was nothing arbitrary about the conduct of the Chair yesterday. This Speaker is well aware of how to go about the business of chairing the proceedings of the House, because he has been doing so for nine and a half years. I hope that colleagues will understand when I say that I require no lessons or lectures from others about how to discharge my obligations to Parliament and in support of the right of backbench parliamentarians. I have been doing it and continuing to do it, and I will go on doing it, no matter how much abuse I get from whatever quarter. It is water off a duck’s back as far as I am concerned.’
‘Abuse’ an interesting choice of language when one of the rows that Bercow is embroiled in concerns whether he is the right person to oversee a change in the culture of the House of Commons following the bullying and harassment scandal. His exchange with Leadsom highlights the bitter feud between the pair which has been running for months. This personal feud is a factor in the stand-off between Bercow and the government, but it’s not the only one.
I understand that the genesis of this week’s row was in the government’s decision in 2017 to start abstaining on Opposition Day debates. The Tory whips’ rationale was that trying to contest these non-binding votes would turn into a weekly reminder that the government has no majority. But Bercow was deeply irritated by what he saw as ministers riding roughshod over Parliament. His frustration only increased in December when Theresa May pulled the meaningful vote on Brexit, which once again he felt was the government playing fast and loose with procedure. Yesterday’s ruling was the Speaker trying to show the government that he’s the one who calls the shots.
The problem is that the way Bercow went about sending that message has upset those who are actually interested in keeping the House of Commons as strong as possible, not all of whom are in a position to speak out. It adds to the impression that he is no longer as helpful to Parliament as he once was. That’s certainly the case on the bullying and harassment of Commons staff, given the Cox report on this matter concluded that it was difficult for the necessary change to occur if the current leadership team remained in place. It would be a shame if the reforming Speaker marred his legacy by appearing to outstay his welcome.