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John Bercow’s disregard of precedent is a serious constitutional issue

9 January 2019

2:46 PM

9 January 2019

2:46 PM

It would be tempting to dismiss the past hour and a half of points of order in the House of Commons as MPs making fools of themselves by complaining about things not going their way. Indeed, there was some evidence to support that theory, such as the final exchange of the session between the Speaker and Tory MP Adam Holloway in which the backbencher complained about a ‘bollocks to Brexit’ sticker in the window of a car driven by the Speaker’s wife and shouted, in the manner of a lawyer in a lowbrow television drama: ‘Have you driven that car?’ Bercow made this seem even more ludicrous by assuring the House that ‘that sticker is not mine’.

There were points of order in which MPs complained that other MPs were making too many points of order, and points of order in which other MPs argued for something they had previously opposed (such as the question of whether the clerks’ advice should be kept confidential, something rather undermined by Labour’s previous quest for the publication of government legal advice on Brexit). All of these incidents did contribute to a rather childish and pointless atmosphere in the Commons.


But focusing on the pointless points of order that were offered this afternoon would be to miss the very serious issue at stake. Today Speaker Bercow told the House of Commons that he could disregard precedent and change procedure as he wished, while admitting that he hadn’t fully thought through the implications of this. The reason, for those who are understandably befuddled by this row, that there were so many points of order is that Bercow had decided to accept an amendment to the business motion for today’s Brexit debate which would give May just three days to return to the Commons with new plans if her Brexit deal fails to pass next week’s meaningful vote. It has been reported that Bercow was advised by the clerks that such an amendment was not in line with Commons procedure, and Bercow as good as admitted that today, telling Jacob Rees-Mogg that he would reflect on the points that he had made. This shows that the Speaker has not thought through the precedent that his own actions would set.

Does any of this matter? In an internal Commons sense, very much, and not just with regards to Brexit. There’s firstly the matter of Bercow’s authority as Speaker, which has already been seriously undermined by his implication in and response to the row about bullying and harassment of Commons staff. A number of Tory MPs argued that Bercow’s decision had undermined his authority as chair, with Crispin Blunt saying he and other colleagues would feel ‘the referee of our affairs… is no longer neutral’. That so many Labour MPs were so keen to defend Bercow both today and in the aftermath of the Cox report on bullying suggests that there is at least a perceived advantage in keeping him as Speaker during the Brexit process.

Then there’s the matter of how the Commons works in the future, long after Bercow has gone. Does this mean that another Speaker can change procedure as he pleases, even against the advice of his own clerks? How can the Commons prevent this leading to the next referee being so obviously lacking in neutrality that their authority is even less than Bercow’s?


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