John Bercow’s decision not to stand for re-election will bring some satisfaction to Brexiteers after several miserable weeks. The Speaker has been nakedly partisan, personally spiteful in the chair and done more to resist Brexit than the entire Labour Party put together. Many Tories consider him a jumped-up little twerp with an over-inflated sense of his constitutional significance but he is their jumped-up little twerp, one who entered Parliament by pandering to hard-right prejudices and whom backbench Tories rallied behind in 2015 when the Coalition government tried to get rid of him.
Then Leader of the House William Hague concocted a plot to oust Bercow by introducing a secret ballot for electing a Speaker in the next Parliament. Amid much schoolboy sentiment, Tory MPs rose to declaim this sharp practice and keep Bercow in post. What kind of weak-kneed TRG wet would do such a thing? Well, for starters, one who scolded the retiring Hague ‘that his career should end with his name being put to a bit of parliamentary jiggery-pokery that has come about, representing grudges that some people have against Mr Speaker’. All in all, it was one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s more heartfelt interventions.
Bercow has been far from one of our great parliamentarians but the Tory right should not be allowed to rewrite its role in his speakership. They are not all fair-minded defenders of the independence of the chair; many tolerated Bercow’s tantrums when they were targeted at the Cameroons and only objected to his partisanship when it was directed at Brexit. Where he has used his office to frustrate a Brexit government and assist a Remain Parliament, more than a few Brexiteers deserve part of the blame for grandstanding instead of getting him when they had the chance.
The Speaker has many flaws. He is a long-winded narcissist and allegations have been levelled against his treatment of staff. He has brought personal politics to the chair and, perhaps just as regrettably, his excitable wife to Speaker’s House. But whether you consider him a sesquipedalian midget or a looming presence whose bias overshadowed his tenure, he has been a thoroughly necessary shop steward for Parliament at a time of executive over-reach. The Cameron-Osborne Ministry of Mates showed scant deference to the House and was responsible for the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, a piece of vandalism that emerged from proud ignorance of our parliamentary traditions.
Theresa May’s fortress administration, carried over from the Home Office, barely acknowledged the Cabinet, let alone the Commons. The current government – assuming it is still current at time of publication – has opted to shutter Parliament, and even if Parliament brought this outcome on itself by refusing to accept the outcome of the EU referendum, it is still another low point in the recent history of the Westminster system.
Bercow has been Parliament’s man across these unfolding indignities, using his untouchable position to cajole, rebuke, deride and guilt ministers into conducting business with more regard for the history and symbolic heft of the benches on which they perch. He has championed the lowliest backbencher against the might of the executive and the select committees against sometimes open contempt. He has not represented the people but, then, he was not elected to: Parliament needs its defenders too, even when it is in rebellion against the voters, even when it is in the wrong, and that is what Bercow has been.
He may have lacked balance, decorum, good judgement and humility but those qualities are hardly in evidence anywhere else at Westminster, and may even be a hindrance in a populist era. If he has been a priggish taker of sides, he has merely taken the side of one set of prigs against another. His entitlement may have grated but often because it found a competing entitlement to grate against. Bercow annoyed a lot of people and some of them were thoroughly asking for it.