The wrong man is in the chair at this crucial stage
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.