The perils of a speaker unchained

Bercow remains a grim warning about what a politician can still do in the chair, if he puts his mind to it


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It seems many lifetimes ago now. In the summer of 2009, the Speaker of the House of Commons was under acute political pressure. Scandal followed scandal as MPs’ widespread abuses of the system of expenses and allowances were exposed. An ecosystem which had existed on the basis of nods, understandings and unspoken compromises was falling apart under public scrutiny — and the mishandling of the whole rotten affair was being laid at the foot of the chair.

Speaker Michael Martin in ceremonial robes

The truth was that Michael Martin, long-time Labour MP for Glasgow Springburn, was not up to the job of Speaker. A standard-issue Scottish trade union heavy, he had not troubled the front bench, but had put in blameless and anonymous service chairing legislative committees in the Commons until, in 1997, he was appointed second deputy speaker. Three years later Speaker Boothroyd stepped down, and Martin, although far from the most distinguished candidate in the race, got the nod.

Convention would have suggested it was the Conservatives’ turn, and many eminent parliamentarians such as Alan Haselhurst and George Young offered their services. But 2000 was the pomp of New Labour, the Tories were a diminished force and few questions were asked. After a six-hour round of speeches and divisions, the Commons ordered that Michael Martin do take the chair of this House as Speaker.

Bercow had few friends on his own benches amid rumours of defection to Blair’s Labour Party. All of this would come back to haunt him

The expenses scandal which ended Martin’s speakership was also emblematic of it. The stolid incumbent had no ability to grasp the scale of the reputational crisis facing the House, and his unlikely partnership with the languid, patrician clerk of the House, Malcolm Jack, had cooled until the tension between them was visible in the chamber. During one particularly painful statement, Martin looked confused, halting and unsure of procedure. His stilted consultation with the clerk in front of him was like a forced exchange between estranged lovers.

So Michael Martin resigned and after a hotly-contested election, an eccentric and self-confident backbencher, John Bercow, comfortably beat fellow Tory Sir George Young to the chair on a platform of empowering the legislature against the executive. He said he wanted to “help parliament get off its knees and recognise that it isn’t just there as a rubber-stamping operation for the government of the day”. A stronger voice for backbenchers was promised, and there was a feeling too that he would push forward “modernisation”, redeeming a House that seemed out-of-touch and vaguely ridiculous during the expenses scandal.

John Bercow — tactically late of the Tory shadow cabinet — pledged when elected to serve two terms, or ten years, whichever was the longer: an unnecessary promise, later broken. Although pledged to stand up for the whole House, he was elected overwhelmingly on Labour votes. He had few friends on his own benches amid rumours of defection to Blair’s Labour Party. All of this would come back to haunt Bercow. But all were there when he took the chair.

As Speaker he had real virtues. Bercow knew how the House of Commons worked. He knew more about its procedure and practices than almost any other MP, had chaired legislative committees deftly and efficiently, and, from a clerk’s point of view, was an extremely safe pair of hands. He needed minimal advice, knew by learning and instinct how to react when things went wrong, and — at least in the early days — listened to official advice attentively and courteously, usually following it.

Bercow discovered — or perhaps knew— that an urgent question pushed the Speaker to the forefront

He also understood that one of the causes of the House’s reputational catastrophe over expenses, and particularly the flat-footed and ham-fisted way in which the authorities had responded, was that it had become deeply inward-looking. As an official in the Commons at the time, I heard MPs discussing the unfolding disaster. Many were not only unaware of the palpable public anger, but even felt that they were the wronged parties, outraged at inaccurate details or misleading interpretations. Far too many MPs simply didn’t get it. Bercow did.

The new Speaker also made good on his promise to empower backbenchers. He accepted far more applications for urgent questions, by which MPs can apply to have a question put orally to ministers the same day. This gives the House a direct line of accountability, putting the government on the spot: but the questions should be genuinely urgent and of public importance if their currency is to remain high.

What Bercow discovered — or perhaps knew intuitively — was that an urgent question not only put the government under the microscope, but pushed the Speaker to the forefront. Never terse, Bercow used these opportunities to expound on the importance of parliamentary scrutiny and present himself, endlessly, as its champion. The bar for granting urgent questions plummeted until it was virtually “issues which were in the media”, that ensured the House, and its Speaker, more airtime.

Bercow takes the chair on 23 June, 2009

A few words should be said on Bercow’s style. He is a man who vibrates with barely suppressed energy, and he was acutely aware of the dignity of the ancient office he held. For all that he was a moderniser, eschewing the speaker’s formal court dress in favour of a plain black gown over a lounge suit, he was as stuffed a shirt as you could find when it came to his office. He expected corridors to be cleared as he passed around the precincts of Westminster, and looked askance if MPs did not stand aside and bow their heads respectfully. One Conservative, Mark Pritchard, was alleged to have snapped “You’re not fucking royalty” when he encountered the presiding officer, entourage and ornaments in transit.

More generally, Bercow’s monstrously orotund oratorical style came to define him for many. Even his closest associates would admit he will never use one word where ten, at least one of them Dickensian, will do, and in the chair this became more pronounced. He was fond of advising raucous MPs to “take a soothing medicament”, chastised them for “chuntering from a sedentary position” and liked to refer to his flock as “denizens of the House”. Most famously, of course, he bellowed “Order! Order!” in astonishingly fruity tones.

Many detractors think this is evidence of grotesque affectation, that the strange, purple-faced peddler of bombast assumed a character when in “official” mode which was an act at first, but then the mask ate into the face. Not so. Whatever else Bercow is, he is genuine: he really does talk like that, even in normal conversation. He admitted to a German newspaper: “I am who I am. It’s not a performance. It’s not an act, it’s not a contrivance. There’s no artifice in me.” It is, perhaps, the truest and most insightful thing he has ever said.

Taken in isolation, All of these observations would be trifling commentary on a long-serving Speaker. Yes, he was vainglorious, greedy for attention and wordy in the way that those insecurely proud of their intellectual achievements can be. He was pompous and could stand absurdly on his dignity. But these were not the problems with Speaker Bercow. Those were twofold, and they are constitutional dynamite.

The first only came to the fore in the latter years of his speakership, as the parliamentary debates over Brexit became more intense and bitter. In January 2019, the government set down a business motion allowing for five days of debate on the Brexit deal Theresa May had agreed with the EU. Dominic Grieve, the Europhile former Attorney General, sought to table an amendment requiring the prime minister to present a “Plan B” within three days if the Commons voted against her deal.

Because of his previous actions, Bercow was exposed and vulnerable when he pressed the extent of his powers as Speaker to their limits

This seems unobjectionable, but the overwhelming precedent was that such motions are not amendable. That was the advice the clerks of the House had given to Tory MP Peter Bone and also presented to Speaker Bercow. Parliament runs on a mixture of rules and precedent, so the advice was not absolute, though it was in line with what had for decades been considered orderly.

The Speaker decided to overlook precedent and to reject the advice of his clerks. He was perfectly entitled to do this: he is the presiding officer, elected by his fellow members, while clerks are simply sources of advice and information. Bercow accepted Grieve’s amendment, which the House narrowly agreed to, thereby cutting Theresa May’s response time from three weeks to three days.

It would be unfair to say that Bercow had stepped out of the umpire’s chair onto the field of play. But by making such an obvious break with convention, he opened himself up to scrutiny on his motives and beliefs. It did not help that Bercow was known to be strongly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, that his wife’s car, parked in Speaker’s Court, bore a sticker reading “Bollocks to Brexit” and that he had made unguarded remarks at an academic seminar about how unwise he thought Brexit to be. The critical context Bercow exploited was that there was no Commons majority for whatever Theresa May would reveal as being her EU policy. 

In March 2019 he wielded his authority again, when the government was considering bringing its Brexit deal back to the Commons for a third time (“MV3”) in an attempt to gain parliamentary approval, Bercow made a pre-emptive statement from the chair, saying that he would not allow a third vote on a motion which was “substantially the same” as one the House had defeated the previous week.

Bercow polarised a political community, pushed impartiality to its limits and moved the goalposts while Brexit was still going on

This time, the Speaker embraced rather than eschewed precedent and pointed to a ruling by Speaker Phelips in 1604 which made clear that a defeated motion could not be presented again in the same form in the same session. Bercow had not discussed his statement with the government — he was not obliged to do so — but its timing was not accidental, and enraged ministers and supportive Conservatives.

These controversial decisions would have been remarkable but might have escaped criticism if the Speaker had not behaved as he had in the preceding decade: berating government ministers as if they were errant schoolchildren, letting slip his views on matters of politics, conducting himself in a way that antagonised many MPs. But because of his actions, Bercow was exposed and vulnerable when he pressed the extent of his powers as Speaker to their limits. Suspicion of his motives came naturally to Conservative MPs aggravated vastly by the role he was ostentatiously seeking to play in settling Brexit.

He wanted to be a star, and unquestionably got his wish: but at what cost?

Imagine if the roles had been reversed. A Eurosceptic speaker — let us suppose that Richard Shepherd had prevailed in 2009, or that Jacob Rees-Mogg had somehow scrambled to the chair — who defied precedent and advice to smooth the passage of a Brexit deal or to protect it from prolonged (and wrecking) scrutiny would have been excoriated by right-thinking journalists and many MPs. Jowls would have wobbled as the “ancient liberties of Parliament” were supposedly endangered and the elected chamber ridden over roughshod. The “counter Bercow” would have been greeted as a monster as dangerous as Guido Fawkes or Charles I: and the charge would have had considerable force.

One last issue on which we must touch is bullying. It is well known that several members of staff have accused Bercow of overbearing behaviour, sometimes with very serious alleged consequences. Bercow strenuously denies the allegations. But when Bercow recently announced, to no-one’s surprise, he had finally joined the Labour Party, one needle-sharp commentator observed, “It is unbelievably frustrating to watch politicians be so complimentary about a man who faces allegations of bullying.” 

So it is. It is also frustrating for all involved, not least Bercow, I imagine, that the investigations remain ongoing two years after he left the Commons. The House has come a long way, sometimes haltingly, on the issue of the conduct of Members, but until conclusions are reached, that cloud must remain.

John Bercow came to the office of Speaker as saviour, promising empowerment, modernisation and accountability. In some creditable ways, he provided it, and the House he left was very different from the one he inherited in 2009. But he also polarised a political community that was already becoming rancorous, pushed the Speaker’s impartiality to its limits and moved the goalposts while the great Brexit match was still going on. He wanted to be a star, and unquestionably got his wish: but at what cost to the elected chamber which is supposed to be the shield of our democracy?

Parliament is more boring now, and that is as it should be. There is now more scrutiny than showbiz, and egos do not make the corridors feel narrow. The Commons is far from perfect but through its debates and scrutiny, and the work of its committees, it does nominally hold the Government to account. Its failings are to be laid at the feet of the party system and the blind loyalty of MPs to their whips. As Speaker Hoyle goes about his business, there is, now, more light than heat. But Bercow unchained remains a grim warning about what a politician can still do in the chair, if he puts his mind to it. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover