The line between civilisation and savagery is thin. Policing that boundary in the House of Commons — where MPs’ boisterousness makes it especially fine — is the Speaker. It is an inherently contentious job. Chairing charged debates in the unforgiving Commons chamber and ruling on procedural questions whose arcana often belie their political significance, will inevitably generate bad blood.
Doing the job well entails frustrating cabinet ministers, shadow cabinet ministers and backbenchers alike. Yet a Speaker must command a respect that runs deeper than the short-lived irritation at his most recent decision. Respect is earned not by kowtowing to one side or the other, but by demonstrating even-handedness, a sense of fairness and a commitment, above all else, to the lower chamber of the mother of parliaments.
John Bercow became Speaker at a moment of crisis for the Commons. After the expenses scandal erupted in 2009, MPs’ standing in the eyes of voters reached new lows, and Michael Martin, who had overseen the corrupt allowances system, was forced out of the chair. In the speech to colleagues that won him the speakership, Bercow said that “a legislature cannot be effective while suffering from public scorn”, promising to “implement an agenda for reform, for renewal, for revitalisation and for the reassertion of the core values of this great institution”.
In some important respects, he has stuck to that pledge. He has ushered in an improved, though still imperfect, system of expenses. He has championed the backbencher and fought to reestablish the Commons as the fulcrum of our politics and strengthen democratic accountability, insisting wherever possible that ministers make statements to the house, rather than at stage-managed photo-ops.
But Bercow is a Speaker with a fatal flaw: he is unable to distinguish the importance of his office from the importance of its holder. He cannot help but personalise constitutional clashes between the executive and the legislature and is incapable of the light touch that makes for a well-chaired debate. Dip into coverage of Commons proceedings and it is never long before one finds Bercow asking MPs to keep their questions brief and direct in the most long-winded and circuitous manner he can muster.
One of Bercow’s shallower modernising moves was to swap the court dress worn by his predecessors for a conventional suit and tie. He can wear what he wants; his mistake was to think that old-fashioned clothes, rather than his wordy and unfunny put-downs — which belong in a university debating club — are what turn many voters off the Commons. It is telling that Bernard Weatherill, the last Speaker to wear a wig, did so because he thought it helped to distinguish the office from its holder. “I don’t think the Speaker should be the star,” he once said in an interview with the Telegraph. “Parliament should be a forum not a stage.”
Which brings us neatly to Bercow’s recent hat-trick of indiscretions. Let’s take them in ascending order of headlines generated, for one suspects that is how Bercow sees the world. First there is the fact he blocked the Commons from being notified of police investigations into Keith Vaz after receiving donations from the Labour MPs associates. A Speaker elected to restore the reputation of the Commons can hardly do so when more than a whiff of impropriety surrounds his own conduct.
Next we come to his decision not only to reveal to students in a lecture at Reading University that he voted to Remain in last year’s referendum, but to explain at some length why he did so. He failed to appreciate that the impression of impartiality is as important as impartiality itself.
Topping the attention-grabbing charts is the Speaker’s explanation to the Commons of why he opposed an address to both Houses of Parliament by President Trump. That he managed to make the sensitive question of diplomatic relations between Donald Trump and Theresa May instead a story about John Bercow makes this a quintessentially Bercovian intervention. Leaving to one side the double standard of refusing to invite Trump while taking no issue with welcoming President Xi of China (who is also General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party), Bercow’s grandstanding was unnecessary. There is no plan to invite Trump to address both Houses of Parliament. It is apparently not even something the President himself wants to do. Perhaps the Speaker’s eagerness to emphasise his “opposition to racism and sexism” can be explained by his dubious past. At the start of his political life he was a member of the far-right Monday Club where he held the dubious position of Immigration and Repatriation Officer.
Bercow’s Trump speech was met with clapping in the Commons — a breach of convention he has rebuked MPs for in the past. He seems suddenly relaxed about such a breach when he is the subject of that applause. As with much else during Bercow’s time in office, it seems this had less to do with the President with the hair, and more with the Speaker in the chair.