The wrong man is in the chair at this cru­cial stage

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - By Philip John­ston

This was John Ber­cow’s great mo­ment and he was en­joy­ing it im­mensely. With the House of Com­mons in tur­moil, the Speaker was demon­strat­ing his power and au­thor­ity. At is­sue was whether he should have ac­cepted an amend­ment to a gov­ern­ment mo­tion that al­lowed MPS op­posed to a no-deal Brexit to in­flict an­other de­feat on Theresa May.

“I am not set­ting my­self up against the Gov­ern­ment. I am cham­pi­oning the rights of the House of Com­mons,” he said por­ten­tously at the height of yes­ter­day’s furore. “My job is not to be a cheer­leader for the ex­ec­u­tive branch.”

There was an echo here of the great­est of Speak­ers, Wil­liam Len­thall, who was in the chair when Charles I en­tered the cham­ber in Jan­uary 1642 look­ing to ar­rest five MPS he con­sid­ered to be traitors.

Where are they, asked the king. “May it please your majesty,” replied Len­thall, “I have nei­ther eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to di­rect me whose ser­vant I am here.”

Mr Ber­cow is keenly aware of the his­tory of his po­si­tion and of its sta­tus. But, as was ap­par­ent yes­ter­day, he is a deeply di­vi­sive fig­ure and the wrong per­son to be oc­cu­py­ing the chair at such a crit­i­cal stage in the Brexit process. As has been seen re­cently, par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure is cru­cial and Mr Ber­cow is the ar­biter of the rules.

It is ru­moured that his clerks ad­vised against ac­cept­ing the Do­minic Grieve amend­ment but, true or not, it does not mat­ter, be­cause it is the Speaker who makes the fi­nal de­ci­sion.

When he took the chair in 2009, the ben­e­fi­ciary of the res­ig­na­tion of Michael Martin at the height of the ex­penses scan­dal, he said: “A Speaker has a re­spon­si­bil­ity im­me­di­ately and per­ma­nently to cast aside all his or her pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal views. My

com­mit­ment to this House is to be com­pletely im­par­tial as be­tween mem­bers of one po­lit­i­cal party and an­other.”

But he has not done this, whether or not he thinks so. On the great is­sue of our times, he is pas­sion­ately an­tibrexit. Even if the in­fa­mous sticker with the slo­gan “B------- to Brexit” is on his wife’s car, it pretty much sums up his view of the mat­ter, too.

This is why he came un­der such crit­i­cism from Brex­i­teers for his de­ci­sion yes­ter­day. He is sim­ply not trusted by a lot of Tory MPS. As Crispin Blunt put it: “From now on many of us will have an un­shake­able con­vic­tion that the ref­eree of our af­fairs is no longer neu­tral.”

This has been the case for some time. Although elected as a Tory MP for the ul­tra-safe seat of Buck­ing­ham, it was the Labour Party that in­stalled him as Speaker be­cause it knew he was un­pop­u­lar among his col­leagues.

He has shot across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum from mem­ber­ship of the Right-wing Mon­day Club, which once ad­vo­cated the as­sisted repa­tri­a­tion of im­mi­grants, to be­come the most “pro­gres­sive” of politi­cians, in­cor­po­rat­ing into his coat of arms a se­ries of pink tri­an­gles and rain­bow colours to high­light his role in cham­pi­oning LGBT rights.

It tells the story of Ber­cow’s jour­ney from hum­ble be­gin­nings as the son of a taxi driver to be­come the First Com­moner of the Land. The Ber­cow coat of arms fea­tures a lad­der to rep­re­sent his jour­ney up­wards. It fea­tures four roundels to rep­re­sent his in­ter­est in ten­nis. The curved, notched blades of seaxes rep­re­sent Es­sex, where Ber­cow went to univer­sity. The motto is All Are Equal.

Pre­dictably, Mr Ber­cow dis­pensed with any rem­nants of the Speaker’s cer­e­mo­nial garb when he took of­fice. His two pre­de­ces­sors had al­ready dumped the wig, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons in Betty Boothroyd’s case; for po­lit­i­cal ones in Michael Martin’s. The lat­ter, the first Speaker to re­sign for 300 years, also did away with the tights and sil­ver-buck­led shoes but still wore a for­mal robe with a court suit and cuffs. Mr Ber­cow, how­ever, dresses like the head­mas­ter of a mi­nor pub­lic school in his suit and gown.

The fact that his wife Sally is a Labour sup­porter has not helped con­vince Tories he is as much on their side as on that of their op­po­nents,

‘The dis­trust has blinded them… he does have a point when it comes to curb­ing the pow­ers of the ex­ec­u­tive’

how­ever much he protests his non-par­ti­san­ship. He has also faced al­le­ga­tions of bul­ly­ing, which he de­nies, and has al­ready over­stayed the nine years in of­fice that he orig­i­nally promised to serve be­fore step­ping down – pro­tected by a group of Labour MPS who cyn­i­cally and cor­rectly cal­cu­lated that he would be crit­i­cal to the fate of Brexit should the Com­mons re­ject Theresa May’s deal with the EU. The dis­trust in which Mr Ber­cow is held by many Tories has blinded them to the fact that he does have a point when it comes to curb­ing the pow­ers of the ex­ec­u­tive. Many MPS who for decades have ar­gued for Par­lia­ment to “take back con­trol” from the EU are now ap­par­ently happy to have de­ci­sions forced on them by the ex­ec­u­tive branch with­out any re­course to the Com­mons.

Mr Ber­cow said he was not seek­ing to stop Brexit but to give MPS the op­por­tu­nity to de­cide the coun­try’s fate. But if these pro­ce­dural shenani­gans can re­verse the ref­er­en­dum re­sult, no one will be hap­pier. He will re­tire con­sid­er­ing his work done, leav­ing be­hind a frac­tured Par­lia­ment, a di­vided coun­try and a busted democ­racy. For some­one who cam­paigned for the of­fice in or­der to “re­build trust and re­store our rep­u­ta­tion”, that will be a bale­ful legacy.

More­over, we should re­mem­ber what hap­pened af­ter Speaker Len­thall’s great stand in 1642. It didn’t end well.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.