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The Spectator's Notes

Speaker Bercow has split the House and dishonoured his office

Also in the Spectator’s Notes: what Brexiteers really fear, electoral fraud, and a perfectly conservative letter

11 February 2017

9:00 AM

11 February 2017

9:00 AM

As we have been reminded this week, the most famous words (apart from ‘Order, order’) ever uttered by a Speaker of the House of Commons were those of William Lenthall. When King Charles I entered Parliament in search of the ‘five birds’ in 1642, Lenthall knelt to the King but told him, ‘I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me.’ It is only on that basis that the Speaker speaks. As soon as John Bercow said — of the speculative possibility that Donald Trump should address both Houses of Parliament — ‘I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism’ meant that the speech should not take place, he was out of order. His strong feelings are irrelevant, and it is unparliamentary of him to express them. Mr Bercow says he was putting forward the views of many MPs. The phrasing of the question from the Labour MP Stephen Doughty, which prompted Mr Bercow’s answer, certainly suggests the thing was cooked up between them. But Speaker Lenthall did not say ‘as some MPs are pleased to direct me’: he was speaking of the will of the whole House. Mr Bercow took no steps to ascertain that will. As a result of his exaltation of self over role, ‘Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief.’

We have been hereabouts before. When President Reagan was due to pay his visit to Britain in 1982, his adviser Michael Deaver leaked the secret plan for him to address MPs and peers in Westminster Hall. The Labour leader, Michael Foot, was furious at Mrs Thatcher for not consulting him. He complained, constitutionally correctly, that the invitation must come from Parliament, not government. Mrs Thatcher was upset about possible insult to ‘our staunchest ally’, especially when the White House suggested it might be better to pull out of the speech altogether. In the end, to her irritation, Reagan was made to speak in the Royal Gallery, not in Westminster Hall. If Mr Bercow had told the government privately that he could not recommend a speech to members of both Houses without bipartisan support, he would have been well within his rights. Instead, he chose to split the House in public, though no invitation to Mr Trump to speak had even been issued.


The following tweet from Amol Rajan: ‘The @Telegraph’s Charles Moore expresses faith in the American system [about how Donald Trump is subject to the rule of law]. Incidentally, faith is belief without evidence.’ Mr Rajan is the media editor of the BBC and was tweeting from his BBC account. So is it the position of the BBC — or at least of its media coverage — that one should not have faith in the American system?

Although I started it, I apologise for prolonging an intercolumnar argument. Matthew Parris (4 February) is surely right that many Brexiteers in past months have been showing signs of anxiety. He attributes this to being ‘secretly, usually unconsciously, terrified that they’ve done the wrong thing’. This may be part of it — it would be a strange person, after making such a momentous decision, who felt no qualms — but I don’t think it is the chief explanation. Our real fear is that, having come so far, we might be cheated of what we thought we had achieved. After the vote on 23 June, many powerful Remain supporters questioned the mandate for leaving, the right of the United Kingdom as a whole (as opposed to its component parts) to leave and the legality of the means. They also attempted to affect the parliamentary arithmetic required. I came across several important Remainers who suggested that leaving should be prevented if possible, and that the possibility was real. Some said darkly that plans for sabotage were afoot, and I could all too readily believe that the brilliant Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, the Remainer who is credited with having invented Article 50 itself, had concealed self-destruct mechanisms inside his own creation. Brexiteers also unexpectedly found themselves with a new Prime Minister who had voted Remain. This, at first, added to doubts. So it was rational to fear losing what had just been gained, against enormous odds, after a fight which, for some people, had gone on for 40 years. What with Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech and US support and huge parliamentary majorities for going ahead, it all feels better now, so one would expect tension to ease a bit. Meanwhile, I note with pleasure that Matthew, in the process of offering Brexiteers a ladder to climb down, gossamer-wove one for himself, admitting (I think for the first time) that Brexit might work.

This column has discussed voter fraud (Notes, 20 August), and the attempt by the Electoral Commission to get me punished when I exposed it. An interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal last week reported something similar in New York. There the city Department of Investigation got 63 people to pose as ineligible voters still on the voter rolls (ineligible because dead, moved away or in prison). They went and voted in order to judge the extent of the problem. Only one such fraud was detected — because the voting clerk was the mother of the ineligible felon being impersonated. The reaction of the Board of Elections, the body charged with overseeing the democratic process, was to complain of the impersonations and call for the Department of Investigation undercover agents to be prosecuted.

I recently received a letter recommending a new president for a dining club. I extract the following: ‘I think X would be ideal: (i) his father was a long standing member and his uncle was President, so he understands the traditions of the Club and would not seek to introduce unwelcome innovations, (ii) he is the right age (I mean he looks old, even though he isn’t), and (iii) when the requirement arises for “a few well chosen words”, he will be the soul of brevity and wit.’ This strikes me as an almost perfectly conservative series of thoughts.


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