Anyone who doubted that John Bercow is an arrogant blowhard who harbours a seething contempt for Brexiteers will surely have been disabused of their doubts last night.
After he announced his resignation as Speaker, and received a fawning and utterly unparliamentary round of applause from his fellow Brexitphobes on the Opposition benches, Bercow lost it. He went nuts.
He was puffing himself up, as usual, as the sole guardian of parliamentary convention and general political decency when an MP had the temerity to interrupt and contradict him.
Those who have accused me of bending the rules are utterly wrong, Bercow was saying. Tellingly, he kicked off his one-man orgy of self-congratulation by saying: ‘Can I just say…? Well, whether I can or not, I’m going to.’
What a wonderful and unwitting insight into his approach to parliament — he’ll do whatever the hell he wants, even if he isn’t meant to.
I am right and you are wrong, he continued. I paraphrase, but only just. ‘I do know what I’m doing’, he pontificated. He slammed the ‘pop-up characters’ who have criticised his abuse of the parliamentary process in favour of Remainer MPs. These people ‘think they understand [parliamentary] matters’ but in truth they have ‘minimal familiarity’ with the rules, he said.
‘They are entitled to their opinions but they suffer from the notable disadvantage of being completely wrong’, he blustered, chewing over every syllable in that way that people who are unflappably convinced of their own importance tend to.
As he bored on and on, his swipe about ‘pop-up characters’ clearly aimed at Tories like Andrea Leadsom, who has been very critical of Bercow’s disregard for convention, a Tory MP piped up. He said something, inaudible to viewers, that contradicted Bercow’s contortionist back-patting.
And the true John Bercow came out. His face became twisted, his glare intensified. ‘Don’t tell me, young man, from a sedentary position what I can and cannot say’, he barked. ‘I’m not remotely interested in your pettifogging objection chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position’, he continued, sounding for all the world like one of those posh officious teenagers who get a job at the Oxford Union and think people will mistake their familiarity with a thesaurus for actual intelligence.
It was an incredibly illuminating display. It summed up what Bercow has become known for: his contempt for ‘disobedient’ MPs, his bullying behaviour, and his disregard for the traditional constraints on the Speaker’s role. ‘Whether I can or not, I’m going to…’
The fact is this: for all the weird applause given to Bercow yesterday, and for all the Remainer claims that he is a hero of parliamentary sovereignty, he will be remembered as a man who did great harm to the institution of Parliament.
His explicit opposition to Brexit — there was once a sticker in his wife’s car saying ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ — means he has increasingly leant the Speaker’s authority to the anti-Brexit cause.
In the words of Andrea Leadsom, the Speaker is meant to be a ‘politically impartial, independent umpire of proceedings’. But Bercow, as Leadsom says, has utterly failed to be impartial.
The most recent example was his granting of permission to MPs to use Standing Order Number 24 to seize control of the parliamentary timetable. That standing order is typically reserved for the triggering of emergency debates. But Bercow allowed its use for the explicitly political end of blocking a no-deal Brexit and extending the Article 50 process. In so doing, he had not only ‘bent the rules — he has broken them’, said Leadsom.
In January, Bercow was accused of ‘unilaterally changing’ parliamentary rules when he overruled officials and allowed a vote on Theresa May’s ‘Plan B’ for Brexit.
In March he prevented May from bringing back her Withdrawal Agreement for a third vote in the Commons. His implication was that May should go back to the EU and seek an extension to the Article 50 process — a flagrant attempt by the Speaker to steer the political process itself. Government officials accused him of once again flouting parliamentary convention and using his position to seek a ‘longer extension’ and a ‘softer form of Brexit’.
Bercow is a Remainer. He voted Remain and told students at Reading University in 2017 that it would have been better for the UK ‘to stay in the European Union’.
That’s fine, or it would be if he had managed to keep his Remainerism to himself and stayed neutral in Parliament. But he hasn’t. He has sided with the Remainer wing of Parliament again and again, leading Andrew Bridgen to say that the supposedly objective Speaker is ‘conspiring with Remainer MPs to stop Brexit and subvert democracy’.
Bercow may have been cheered by pro-Remain MPs yesterday. And the out-of-touch Twitterati might love him too. But to vast numbers of ordinary people Bercow’s barking of insults at the ‘chuntering’ MP who dared to criticise him yesterday will sum up both Bercow’s scandalous, politicised tenure as Speaker and the current dire state of Parliament more broadly.