Matthew Parris

In (conditional) defence of John Bercow

He’s pompous, vain and silly – but deposing him would leave a poisonous legacy

In (conditional) defence of John Bercow
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James Duddridge is not wrong. The Tory MP for Rochford and Southend East, who has put down a ‘no confidence’ motion in Mr Speaker Bercow, says John Bercow has abused ‘his employment contract’ by his openly political remarks. The last straw was telling students at the University of Reading that he voted Remain in last year’s European referendum. Duddridge is a fiercely outspoken Leaver, but his complaint is that the Speaker should not have revealed any preference at all. Few should contest this.

Anger over the Reading revelation builds on a history of complaint: the most recent example is still fresh. It was wrong to create the news story that as Speaker he would block an invitation to Donald Trump to address both Houses in Westminster Hall during a presidential visit that (I’d take a small bet) may not even happen. Such an invitation had never been extended and could have been privately blocked by the Commons Speaker if mooted with him. Bercow was just grandstanding.

It's Matthew Parris vs James Forsyth on the future of John Bercow:

But then Bercow is Bercow. He isn’t the first and won’t be the last Speaker to grandstand, and his role should not prohibit a bit of grandstanding: Bercow’s weaknesses must be taken alongside his strengths. Of these, more in a moment; but first I’d better be plain. Mr Speaker Bercow’s last two public gestures have been well out of order and he should soon call it a day. Whether or not (as some Tories feel) he has favoured Labour from the Chair in his Commons judgements, speaking in public from the left does invite suspicion.

Mr Duddridge’s motion, however, would probably have the unintended effect of guaranteeing Bercow’s tenure, but in an atmosphere of partisan ill-will. This Speaker has previously said that he would anyway step down in 2018. It’s now very clear (to your former-MP columnist at least) that everyone should pipe down, the motion should be withdrawn, and the Speaker should be allowed to choose his own retirement date next year.

The worst outcome is the one Duddridge’s plan makes most likely: that the ‘no confidence’ motion is debated in a poisonous cloud of insult; the whole thing begins to feel like Tories-versus-Speaker; all opposition parties unite in Bercow’s support; many Conservative backbenchers end up opposing (or abstaining on) the motion; Bercow ‘wins’ and strides on, a hate figure to one group of MPs, the toast of another. And he’d go next year leaving a faint sense that he’d been hounded out by Tories. His memoirs would break a number of unwritten codes. There would be a rancorous argument about whether it was now the Tories’ ‘turn’ in the Chair because the previous notionally Conservative Speaker (Bercow was a Tory MP) had turned out to be a left-wing imposter. This would be bad for the office of Speaker, further undermine the principle of the Speaker’s neutrality, and give a nastily sharp edge to what had previously been no more than an amicable understanding: that the Speakership tends to alternate between the two big parties, but is best decided in a peaceable and un-tribal atmosphere.

And now for a not-unconditional defence of John Bercow, who has said and done plenty of silly things, but some seriously good things, too. Consider the previous four Speakers, all of whom I was able to observe at close quarters.

The late Viscount Tonypandy (George Thomas) was a shameless grandstander and a great 20th-century Speaker (1976–83), the first to be broadcast. Politically (though he was from the Labour benches), he appeared studiously neutral. He loved the sound of his own voice — and so did the rest of Britain. At Westminster there was whispered criticism of his love of attention, and some Labour MPs thought him overly indulgent to Margaret Thatcher; but he was too popular to oppose.

The late Bernard (‘Jack’) Weatherill (1983–92) was my personal favourite: a pre-media Speaker in a media age. Somewhat wooden and retiring, he stood up privately to bullying Tory ministers, infuriating them, though always in his heart a Conservative. He made little public impact. A touch of the Bercows would have done him no harm at all.

Lady (Betty) Boothroyd (1992–2000) had more than a touch of the Bercows, but did remain pretty unpartisan. In media terms she was an outstanding Speaker, but the positive imprint she left was on the public imagination rather than on the mores of the Chamber, where she was fairly cautious in all things.

Lord (Michael) Martin’s speakership (2000–2009) ended in his resignation after expenses rows, and there were Tory allegations of partiality to his old Labour comrades; but his air was avuncular and the worst that should be said of him was that he was dull and Buggins’-turn. He badly needed a touch of the Bercows.

Bercow and Betty have needed a touch of the Weatherills; Jack needed a touch of the Bercows; and George needed a shade less of the Betties and a dollop more of the Weatherills. As Speaker you just can’t win. At least all these departed from a tradition of alcoholism and narcolepsy in the Chair.

John Bercow has been both outstanding as a Speaker, and seriously flawed. You would need to be a sixth-former or Westminster habitué to know of the impact he’s made on public access, on engaging with the voters and with young people, on the lecture evenings to which he’s opened his Speaker’s House home, and the endless dog-hangings, so important for public-spirited people, on which he tirelessly drops in. He misspoke at Reading — but he was at least there at Reading, talking to students. His motivating idea, that a Parliament fit for the 21st century must invite and engage the world outside, and the Speaker is its ambassador, is true and strong.

So, Mr Duddridge, don’t pick a fight, lose, and further politicise the Chair. Don’t make the Tories look mean. Let Bercow serve his time then depart of his own accord, to the cacophony of cheers and jeers, the mixed reviews, the lessons learned and the virtues exemplified that are this pompous, vain, humane, public-spirited, indiscreet, ground-breaking but sometimes ill-judged Speaker’s due.