The Commons has just erupted into a bizarre row over an insult thrown across the Chamber. Normally, in these situations, the Speaker ends up scolding the MP who deployed the insult, but in this case it was John Bercow himself who provoked the uproar in the first place. Demanding that Tory MP Greg Hands come to order, the Speaker told the Chamber that Hands hadn’t been a very good whip when he had held the role, which immediately led to angry roars from the Tory benches, followed by repeated shouts of ‘withdraw!’
Initially, Bercow stuck to his guns as Conservatives complained in points of order that he had only recently asked them to consider their language when addressing one another, and that he had praised Oliver Letwin during the debate which had preceded this argument. But realising that he had overstepped in his role as Speaker, Bercow, then offered a half apology, eventually telling the Chamber that he couldn’t offer a comment on what sort of whip Hands had been but that he had been very effective as a minister. His mistake became most obvious when ex-Tory MP Anna Soubry rose to praise Hands’ work as a whip and his decision to resign from the government over a point of principle. Bercow cares very little for the praise or criticism of Tory Brexiteers, but admonishment from pro-Remain MPs on the opposition benches is another matter.
Now, in one sense this is a very silly sideshow from the main event in the Chamber, which is MPs wrestling control of the Order Paper from the government. It was also clearly a proxy for the Tories who were stung at the fact that this amendment from Oliver Letwin had passed. But given the important role of the Speaker during these Brexit debates, this argument was important. Most MPs accept that Bercow is at the very least determined to make Brexit as difficult as possible for the government. Some feel he has let his own opposition to Brexit itself infect the way he conducts himself as Speaker. Others either don’t care about that or think it’s useful as they seek to frustrate the process too in the hope that Britain might be able to remain in the European Union or end up with a softer Brexit. Bercow seemed this evening to have got rather carried away with the admiration of the latter group, thinking that he could insult backbenchers in a manner that undermined his claim to be on the side of Parliament.
The mood in the Chamber was rather ugly, and it’s only Monday. It’s unlikely that relations between ministers and Bercow are going to improve to the level of basic cordiality in the next few days. That doesn’t matter very much, but what does matter more is the way the Speaker conducts proceedings in the House. And once again, it’s unlikely that he is going to settle for any kind of decision which the government sees as being at all fair.