John Bercow must rein it in — Parliament can't afford to depose two Speakers in a row

Not a natural for the job, Bercow is getting too curt and personal, especially with the Prime Minister

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

John Bercow could go down as a great reforming Speaker of the House of Commons. It’s thanks to him, in large part, that the Commons chamber once again seems like the cockpit of the nation. But he now risks becoming the second successive Speaker to be ousted from his job. Even his friends admit that his inability to conceal his dislike for David Cameron and various Tory backbenchers has put his position in jeopardy.

Bercow is a contrast to his predecessor Michael Martin. He is razor sharp and confident in his own judgment. No one doubts his intellectual ability. But Bercow has a large number of detractors. He’s gone from being on the hard right of the Tory party to a darling of the Labour benches — and he has picked up many enemies on the way. But the trouble with Bercow is not so much his politics as his personality. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and treats a lot of Tory MPs as if they were fools.

Nevertheless, Bercow has helped Parliament rediscover its purpose. As Speaker, he consistently calls the amendments which best test the government’s position. This approach, the Bercow doctrine, has made it far easier for Parliament to challenge the executive. Second, by granting so many urgent questions, he has ensured that ministers who have something to announce — or account for — come to the Commons to do so. They know that the choice they face is between making a statement or Bercow granting the opposition an urgent question and them being summoned to the chamber to answer it. Given that situation, most ministers choose to make a statement. Finally, he has upped the tempo of debate. By moving through the order paper at a pace, he has made it impossible for ministers to kill time by boring on in reply. He also uses the discretion of the chair to ensure that a line of questioning can be followed through.

It is inevitable that a set of changes which strengthen Parliament against the executive should lead to grumbling from ministers and whips. But what is endangering Bercow is the widespread sense that he lets his personal animus interfere with his judgment; that he is not even-handed. As one of his allies admits, ‘what undermines John is his temper’.

Bercow’s chairing of the last few sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions has drawn particular criticism. The Speaker’s attitude to heckling has seemed to be determined by which set of benches it is coming from. He has even moved on to commenting on the substance of Cameron’s answers. One minister complains that Bercow has gone from an irritant to a problem. He describes Bercow’s behaviour as ‘malevolent and destructive’.

That might sound rather hyperbolic. But Bercow is being exceedingly curt with people. It is not just ministers who are feeling the rough side of his tongue. One of the few Tories who backed him for Speaker says that his increasingly aggressive put-downs of backbenchers have begun to alienate colleagues. An MP with an extremely good grasp of the state of parliamentary opinion tells me, ‘Until a few weeks ago, I would have said John was in no danger. But he’s reaching a tipping point.’

The danger for Bercow is not a co-ordinated attempt to unseat him — his opponents do not have the numbers for that — but him losing authority in the Chamber. That would be the beginning of the end for him.

A case in point came at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Cameron, spying Bercow poised to intervene on him, declared, ‘I am keen to answer the question, and it is a very direct answer,’ and simply carried on. It is easy to imagine how this could have led to a more direct confrontation between the two men. Indeed, Bercow’s anti-Cameron slant in his chairing of PMQs in recent weeks has led to a situation where the Tory whips would not be doing their jobs if they were not trying to undermine him.

The scorn from the chair is also contributing to an unpleasant atmosphere in the Commons. One long-serving MP observes that there is now a more personal edge to proceedings in the chamber than at any time in the past two decades.

Part of the problem is that Bercow is an accidental reformer. He has come upon this parliamentary reform agenda as a result of his position rather than ideological conviction. Indeed, in some regards, he has not sufficiently defended the rights of Parliament. For example, he should have fought significantly to increase the amount of money going to support the investigative work of select committees. Those who do believe in strengthening Parliament against the executive are increasingly concerned that Bercow’s antics are giving their cause a bad name. If he carries on like this, there’s a real danger that his whole reform agenda could be seen as nothing more than a way to make life difficult for Cameron and co.

Another part of the problem is that Bercow is not temperamentally suited to the role. As one long-time colleague puts it, ‘He’s not a natural Speaker. He loves speaking.’ Bercow ends up making himself the story more than the Speaker should.

The situation is not irreparable. If he cut out the jibes from the chair and concentrated on being studiously impartial, the anger towards him would abate. His opponents know that they don’t have the numbers to remove him in a direct contest and so things would return relatively quickly to the status-quo ante. But if he carries on like this, he is heading for a full-blown confrontation which could — and probably would — end disastrously for him. The Speaker has to have authority in the chamber. Once he’s lost it, his support will drain away.

The removal of a second successive Speaker would also be a disaster for the House of Commons. The Speaker should be above the hurly-burly of politics. He should call for order, rather than being brought to book.

If two Speakers were to be deposed by the House in succession, it would reduce the authority of the chair. As one senior parliamentarian argues, ‘To bump off two Speakers in a row would set a dangerous precedent. It would begin the politicisation of the role.’ For the good of Parliament as well as his own legacy, Bercow needs to rein himself in.

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  • lindaoutofafrica46

    I would support any measure to get rid of John Bercow. He just cannot carry on in such a biased manner which is obvious even to people who are not knowledgeable on parliamentary matters. If Cameron gave him a ‘punch on the nose’ I for one would be delighted. A bit infantile but then again Bercow is becoming a very ‘nasty speaker’. He deserves whatever he gets. Go on David, give him one!

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  • Edward Davie

    Labour MPs only elected Bercow to wind up the Tories so it’s not exactly news that blue benches can’t stand him

  • Barry

    It would be better were he to lose his seat at the next election, taking his publicity-seeking wife with him.

    • Robert Taggart

      Oneself urged the voters of Buckingham to do just that – last time – alas, to no avail !

      • Barry

        Better luck next time.

        • Robert Taggart

          FTR – not a Buckingham constituent oneself – merely an armchair observer from c.one hundred miles north of !

    • Sanctimony

      Over 22,000 thousand imbecilic Tory voters cast their ballot papers in favour of the wretched dwarf at the last election… Farage garnered about 8,000 votes in the same constituency.

      That said, Bercow’s votes were 5000 down on the previous election.

  • Peter Stroud

    I wonder how long ago it was that we had two poor quality Speakers in succession.

  • perdix

    Underneath, Bercow is irritated by the ridiculous antics of his wife, so is keen to assert himself in the House.

  • mattwardman

    He has to live with Sally of our Alley.

    What do you expect except … er … shortness.

  • alexagiusuk

    If Bercow does go which Labour MP should replace him as speaker?

    • Robert Taggart

      Time to give one of the ‘little parties’ their chance ?

    • Sanctimony

      Denis Skinner…

      • Sanctimony

        This was meant as a joke !

        • Fran

          Nah – read Chris Mullins’ insightful memoir, where Skinner’s attitude seems more about concern with dirty laundry staying private, than about getting the fiascos of expenses and Brown’s battiness exposed to daylight.

          Part of the problem, not any solution.

  • me

    The problem in Bercow is just not up to the job, many criticised Speaker Martin, but he is head and shoulders over the current incumbent. The speaker should not be the story but he is and not in a good way either by his antics or those of his wife. Contrast her with Lady Martin who worked hard and did not seek the limelight.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    To bump off two Speakers in a row would set a dangerous precedent. It would begin the politicisation of the role.
    Unfortunately, the role has already become politicised. It started when Labour selected Ian (McThick) Martin, despite the fact that (a) by convention the speaker was usually chosen from the Opposition or by turns between the parties and (b) Ian Martin had no particular aptitude for the job. Labour couldn’t believe how stupid Cameron was when he supported their next suggestion of Bercow. It was another example of Cameron not listening to his own backbenchers, who could have told him what Cameron has taken four years to work out for himself.
    Far from undermining it, tutting somebody in the role who has the gravitas and skill to do it well would be a good first step towards restoring the authority of the chair.

    • Andy

      That is basically the problem. The massed ranks of the Fascist Party could not stomach voting for a Conservative MP as Speaker, as they ought to have done the previous holder having been a Labour MP. So they foisted Michael snout in trough Martin on the house and he was not up to the task. When he was deposed the massed ranks of the Fascist Party foisted the Poison Dwarf on the House, merely to spite the Conservatives and not for the benefit and dignity of the House. The problem is, as always, the mean and nasty attitude of the Fascist Party, and that is underlined by the behaviour of their leader the ghastly Red Ed.

    • gelert

      Private Eye had written of Bercow’s ingratiating himself with Labour MPs, with the aim of winning their support, long before Gorbals Mick left.

    • Aeneas9

      No Ian Martin ever held the post of Speaker of the House of Commons, smartarse!!.

      • ScaryBiscuits

        Good spot, smarty pants. Getting my Martins mixed up.

  • Nick

    I would imagine that it would be a lot of fun just kicking Bercow…………Kicking him around for about 15–20 minutes.

  • SonofBoudica

    I doubt very much that Bercow is capable of reforming himself. He clearly has a Napoleon complex.

  • John Moore

    I voted for Nigel Farage last election for political reasons. However John Bercow is a very good constituency MP and many in Buckingham vote for him because of this.

  • Nick

    Bercow is a slimy little man in every sense.His wife is disgustingly a slapper. What more is there to say.

    • Nick

      Hello Nick.That’s a nice name.

  • Conrad Vink

    Voters are sick of the politicians’ trick of answering the question they wanted to be asked, not the one they were actually asked. Cameron does this in spades at PMQs.

    The UK is in a serious economic and political crisis and voters want their politicians to start having grownup conversations, not act like 14 year old boys slinging clever put-downs across a classroom.

  • fathomwest

    He could get a job with the BBC, reading the shipping forecast.

  • anyfool

    The last two speakers have been Labour appointments basically, both disasters, add to all the other disasters they initiated, par for the course.

  • Burkeian

    Forsyth says the removal of a second successive Speaker would be a disaster for the House of Commons. This is a curious way of asssessing Parliament’s current situation. In the eyes of many the disaster has already occurred. By electing as Speaker two men so inadequate either in intellect or in character to represent Parliament to the Monarch and to the people , MPs have sullied themselves and disgraced Parliament. Bercow is widely despised for his self – seeking ambition, preening arrogance, small-man self-importance and flagrant partiality. It is a fitting judgement on him that he is deemed a failure and a fraud even when compared to his preposterous predecessor.
    Until he is removed Parliament will suffer from the stigma of voluntarily electing this grotesque as their Speaker. That is the disaster

  • Ostercy

    If the PM spent more time answering some Qs at PMQs instead of ignoring them and going off on ad hominem attacks on Labour then Speaker Bercow would not have such a hard job. The Tories it seems cannot bear criticism from anybody.

  • Tom Bacon

    The catch is that Cameron treats PMQs with contempt. He never answers the question, does everything he can to be evasive, and he generally makes PMQs even more of a mockery of government. So he winds up Bercow, who snarls, and it all gets absurd.