There’s no two ways about it, when the time comes for John Bercow to stand down as the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons, he’ll have undoubtedly stamped his own distinctive mark on Parliament – leaving it largely in a better place than he found it.
Despite having been elected to the Chair amidst the extremely choppy waters of the expenses scandal in 2009, he has successfully navigated the Commons through a period of much required reform. Certainly, elements of this were inevitable given the need to salvage what little trust the public afforded Parliament in the wake of Nannygate, Moatgate (and whatever other gate the press could lay their hands on at the time), but it would be wrong to deny Bercow any role in this.
The way Parliament works has in itself changed under his stewardship. His promotion of the backbenches has been universally acknowledged among friend and foe, and his efforts to give MPs more time and increased power to hold the executive to account – through backbench business debates, the granting of almost daily urgent questions, and, to the irritation of some, the exponential rise in Standing Order 24 emergency debates – has led to a greater scrutiny of government and a more transparent, accountable House, which can only be a good thing. Bercow’s work in other areas, notably his championing of LGBT rights, which his coat of arms gives more than one nod to, is also highly commendable.
But let’s be clear, these achievements don’t grant him a get-out-of-jail free card, and if anything, make his recent chicanery all the more disappointing.
The Speaker has ridden out serious and potentially career fatal allegations in the past, including his purported penchant of accepting dodgy donations from dubious characters. He’s also, one way or another, overcome more than his fair share of backstabbing plots to oust him (remember the failed Hague coup a few years back, which, for just one day, made the Commons feel a little more House of Cards than SW1). The latest bullying furore and accusations of sexism surrounding the Speaker are just the most recent bump in a long and winding road of claims and counter claims, which, as before, he’ll pull through relatively unscathed.
There is, however, one key difference in this latest episode: Mr Bercow’s reliance on procedure, and specifically his manipulation of it, to cover his own backside. His impressive knowledge and erudite use of parliamentary mechanics is precisely what has made him such a formidable Chair, but in recent weeks this has unscrupulously been exploited to defend his own position.
Friendly faces and old chums, like Julian Lewis, planted throughout the Commons, misusing points of order as an opportunity to put in a good word in Bercow’s defence; the granting of increasingly tenuous urgent questions and emergency debates to shore up support on the Opposition benches; and the very public snubbing of the Government at every available opportunity, including, in recent weeks alone, his rejection of the Prime Minister’s application for an emergency debate on Syria (choosing one put forward by a Labour backbencher, Alison McGovern, instead), and his decision not to select important Government amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill on 1st May. That, of course, is his prerogative, but his motivations remain in doubt.
This feeling of a stitch-up has only been perpetuated this week by the ludicrous news that Bercow’s recent scolding of Andrea Leadsom, which had more than a whiff of misogyny about it, can’t be investigated by the standards watchdog. Why, you might ask? Because, as Speaker, Bercow is the only person that can rule on behaviour in the Chamber.
In his ever frequent beratings of ‘stupid’ government ministers, and equally regular and defiant proclamations to never be cowed in his defence of the backbenches (which sound more like a salespitch to a disillusioned support group), are we seeing the signs of a man increasingly desperate to cling on to power?
If we are, it’s for good reason. When Lindsay Hoyle, Bercow’s deputy, stood in and oversaw PMQs last month, he aptly managed to keep in check a usually raucous crowd and turn the 30 minutes question time into what it should be – an opportunity to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire on important current affairs – to the applause of MPs on both sides of the Chamber. More worrying for the Bercow luvvies, rumblings that the almost ubiquitously popular Harriet Harman is mounting a challenge from the sidelines have not gone away.
Bercow has always been a marmite character. Quite understandably, many MPs have never been able to warm to his grandstanding style, which to some, borders on sheer narcissism. Even fewer enjoy his humiliating and very public dressing-downs.
But beyond any of this, it is the misuse of his privileged position that should most worry Members. This dereliction of duty, which has ultimately diminished the integrity of the Chair, and does nothing to portray the Commons in a positive light, must be the final nail in the coffin for Bercow’s (nearly overrun) tenure.
If he does care for Parliament and what it stands for, he should do the honourable thing and step aside.