Accused by keen Brexit proponents of continually trying to frustrate Brexit, yet lauded by others as the honourable upholder of parliamentary rule, John Bercow is a hugely polarising character. Regardless of your voting history on the thorny issue of leaving the EU, is the criticism (or adoration) justified?
An acquaintance of mine, who is staunchly pro-remain, recently went to a protest wearing a fetching EU blue t-shirt bearing a declaration of love for the now ex-Speaker of the House of Commons. Predictably, she received abuse on her way back from the demonstration but was resolute in her adoration for his recent decisions, despite his position as a former Tory.
Indeed, amongst my traditionally lefty friends, the MP for Buckingham has become somewhat of a hero. The first speaker since WW2 to have been re-elected four times, he’s also been the Speaker of the House of Commons under four Prime Minsters.
His legacy and role within the House of Commons has been praised for re-invigorating interest in parliamentary proceedings – but the state of what’s being called a ‘zombie parliament’ is most likely playing a much bigger role. Indeed the machinations and complex workings of the seemingly ancient rigmarole are now coming under intense scrutiny. Constitutional nerds are suddenly in the spotlight, whilst various media enterprises spin his decisions according to their beliefs on whether Bercow’s interventions hinder or protect parliamentary sovereignty.
As the arbiter of parliament, the role of the Speaker is crucial. On Thursday 31st October, his last day as speaker, Bercow was called brave by Pete Wishart, an SNP MP, as part of several heartfelt tributes. However, other MPs and many pro-Brexit voters will be glad to see the back of him, as they feel his judgements have overstepped the mark and revealed a lack of impartiality.
Today’s speeches in the House of Commons reveal much of the Speaker candidates’ views on the true role of a Speaker and speak directly to their views on what Bercow has contributed to Brexit.
Labour MP Harriet Harman said she wanted the Speaker to be more “transparent and accountable to this House”. Dame Rosie Winterton (Labour) spoke about how she believed the Speaker should not “dominate proceedings or speak for Parliament”. Chris Bryant (also Labour), perhaps in a nod to Bercow’s decisions based on precedent, talked about how political guide Erskine May was “lying beside [his] bed”, whereas Tory Sir Edward Leigh heavily hinted at the incumbent when he urged a potential Speaker to “submerge their character in the job” and be “a quiet voice”.
When the history of Brexit is committed to future political tomes, John Bercow’s name will be writ large. Momentous but overly wordy, his pronouncements have inarguably shaped both the nation’s discourse around Brexit and who should take the blame for our current failure to leave the European trading bloc.
So, how many of his judgements would have been made by any Speaker, as part of their role, and how many verdicts ‘broke the rules’?
To really understand how Bercow’s interventions have been viewed, you have to return to February 2017 when Bercow addressed a crowd of Reading University students and confessed he voted to Remain. Since then, every single decision, fairly or not, has been viewed through his status as a Remainer.
Back in January 2019, Bercow’s controversial judgement to select Dominic Grieve’s amendment led to accusations that he was ‘unilaterally changing” parliamentary rules. The amendment asked MPs to vote on ‘plan B’ if Theresa May failed to get her deal passed. The change was that MPs would vote within three days of the rejection of the deal, rather than the three weeks previously agreed.
Andrea Leadsom (who is far from Bercow’s biggest fan) said she thought this move was “extremely concerning”, yet Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, himself a keen Eurosceptic and former Chairman of the ERG, said Bercow was a “House of Commons champion”. Rees-Mogg called the interpretation of the rules of parliament “eccentric” but ruled out any sort of conspiratorial plotting.
Bercow’s defence of his position was that if parliament was always bound by what it has always done, no change would ever come; that he acted to protect the rights of parliament. In defending his actions, he noted that MPs could always vote against the motion if they disagreed. As it was, they didn’t: the government lost by 11 votes.
In March 2019, Bercow ruled that Theresa May could not return her Withdrawal Bill (Brexit Deal) to the House for a third ‘meaningful’ vote if it had not undergone any ‘substantive’ changes. Arguing it was to protect “the sensible use of the House’s time, and proper respect for the decisions that it takes” he also quoted from Erskine May, the aforementioned go-to guide to parliamentary procedure. Bercow argued it was a “longstanding convention” that dated back over 400 years, to 1604, and was confirmed in precedent five times in the last 250 years, in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912.
Arguably, this means that any Speaker should have (if they were a constitutional expert) done the same thing. So that’s one decision covered as adherence to the rules.
The irony of it all is that many people, when asked why they voted to leave the EU in the first place, decried the “unelected bureaucrats in Brussels making the rules”. They claimed they wanted our MPs to make our laws – our representational democracy should be sovereign (something the Brexit white paper published in Feb 2017 revealed was always the case).
The government that we are currently under (until Dec 12) was elected after we voted to leave the EU. Yet we now hear arguments that people who want a confirmatory referendum on the Brexit Withdrawal Bill “don’t like the answer we were given” and don’t like democracy. Amazingly, the very same people are now keen to have a general election. Just two years after the last one. We are supposed to vote in our MPs every 5 years, yet it’s not acceptable to ask people to vote once again on something that will affect us and our economy for the rest of our lives?
When looking back at Bercow, it’s important to do so within context. I find it fascinating m that so many see him as such a champion when his sometimes aggressive, often arrogant and overbearing methods have caused so many to focus on him rather than the reasons for his rulings. That he’s allegedly gotten away with potential bullying, without proper investigation.
However, I find it equally wrong that he’s become such a polarising figure of hate, much like the judges who ruled against Johnson’s prorogation of parliament and the members of the House of Lords called ‘saboteurs’ by the Daily Mail in April 2017.
Could it be argued that Bercow’s legacy was actually bringing the right amendments to the table, since MPs voted, invariably, in numbers high enough for them to pass? Could it be said that his decisions, if so incorrect, would have been thwarted by votes against them? It seems that Bercow had enough insight, perhaps, to have had his finger on the pulse of what MPs thought was best for the country. As our elected representatives, of course, that’s what they are in parliament for. And voting them out gives us the opportunity to change that, should we be displeased. It’s not a perfect system – neither is the way we select our representatives, but it’s one we voted to maintain when presented with the Alternative Vote Referendum in 2011.
We’ll never know how things might have been different were Bercow not at the helm of our parliament. However, this Remainer is pleased, on balance, that Bercow’s decisions led to greater scrutiny of the government and he truly held the executive to account. As was his role.
Only time will tell what role Lindsay Hoyle will play in Brexit during his tenure of Speaker of the House of Commons. It’s a pretty hard act to follow.