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Call to Order: the legacy of John Bercow

7 min read

Champion of the backbenches, an over-reaching bully, or Remainer-in-Chief, John Bercow is far from the first Speaker to be deemed controversial. Brexit and beyond, Sebastian Whale examines the impact of his tenure in the Chair

John and Sally Bercow were having dinner with Labour peer Michael Levy and his wife, Gilda, in central London. It was March 2016, and the EU referendum was in its relative infancy. In November of that year, Americans would elect either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as their next president.

Midway through dinner, Levy turned to Bercow. “Well, John, what’s going to happen?” he asked. “Oh, Michael, the British people will vote to Remain and Hillary will be the next president,” Bercow responded confidently. “John,” Levy began. “I want both of those things and I expect neither.”

Bercow, of course, was not alone in failing to predict the outcome of those two seminal events. Neither was he aware of how much they would come to define his legacy as Speaker of the House of Commons.

From the moment of his election in June 2009, there were concerns in Conservative circles surrounding impartiality. When Michael Martin succeeded Betty Boothroyd in 2000, Labour had bucked the tradition of a Speaker alternating between the two main parties. With Martin then the first speaker to be ousted since 1695 in the wake of the expenses scandal, Labour knew his successor would have to be a Tory.

Bercow was by no means the number one choice of the Conservatives. Sir George Young, then shadow leader of the Commons, was the preferred candidate, along with Sir Alan Haselhurst, who had served as deputy speaker. However, with the support of Labour MP Martin Salter, who ran his campaign, Bercow defeated Young in the final round. Labour had allowed a Conservative to take up the position of chair, even if many in his own party viewed Bercow as Tory “in name only”.

He is far from being the first speaker to be accused of bias. The election of Selwyn Lloyd in 1971 was controversial not least because he had served as foreign secretary and chancellor for Conservative governments. However, as Vernon Bogdanor, professor at King’s College London, notes, Lloyd “proved a successful and impartial Speaker”. Margaret Thatcher took issue with Jack Weatherill, claiming that he was biased against her administration, while many Tories felt Speaker Martin was in hock to the Labour government.

During his first years in the Chair, Bercow breathed new life into the House of Commons. The executive was held to account through greater use of Urgent Questions, more backbenchers got their say in the Chamber as he rattled through the Order Paper, and the prime minister was made to stay well beyond the thirty-minute limit for the weekly session of PMQs. He was a thorn in the Government’s side and a particular nuisance to David Cameron. This resulted in a botched attempt to oust him from the chair on the last day of the 2010-15 Parliament, further emboldening Bercow to curtail executive overreach.

Behind the scenes, Bercow had brought forward major reforms. He introduced a creche in 1 Parliament Street where a popular bar named Bellamy’s had once been. Against stern opposition, he pushed through plans for an Education Centre at the North End of Victoria Tower Gardens. He was instrumental in the appointment of Rose Hudson-Wilkin as the Speaker’s Chaplain. On all three counts he was met by a resistant establishment, and would now feel vindicated for his position. Sometimes he got things wrong; his stubborn insistence that Aung San Suu Kyi should address Westminster Hall in 2012, despite not being a head of state at the time, now looks ill-judged. One major defeat came in 2014 when he unsuccessfully tried to instil Carol Mills, a clerk from the Australian parliament in Canberra, as the new Clerk of the Commons.

Bercow will be remembered in part as a great reformer who forced through changes he wished to see in an often aggressive and uncompromising manner. In doing so, he accumulated his fair share of detractors, some of whom bristle about the way in which he went about his endeavours. This unrelenting approach has also seen him face accusations of bullying two former private secretaries, Angus Sinclair and Kate Emms, which he denies. The allegations, which have never been independently investigated, hover like a dark cloud.

“To Remainers, Bercow has become a spiritual figurehead. To Leavers, he has become an enemy”

Though he had largely batted away concerns of bias, the dial was shifted during three days in February 2017. In an appearance before students at Reading University on 3 February, he shed light on how he voted in the EU referendum. “Personally, I voted to Remain. I thought it was better to stay in the European Union than not, partly for economic reasons, being part of a big trade bloc, and partly because I think we’re in a world of power blocs. For all the weaknesses and deficiencies of the European Union, it’s better to be part of that bigger bloc in the world than thinking you can act as effectively on your own,” he said. Three days later, on 6 February, Bercow unilaterally ruled that Trump would not be allowed to address parliament in Westminster Hall, apparently without consulting Norman Fowler, his equivalent in the Lords, and other stakeholders.

From that point forward, decisions he would make from the Chair would be seen through the lens of his views on Brexit. That was his great strategic gamble.

Undoubtedly, Bercow came up against successive administrations under Theresa May and Boris Johnson with a ‘less is more’ approach to the role of the Commons. It is remarkable to think that MPs were not going to be given the right to vote on the triggering of Article 50 or have a say on the final Brexit deal. Much of Bercow’s subsequent procedural creativity was in response to a government that had generally avoided scrutiny. Should a different approach have been adopted with the House, perhaps he would not have needed to act in the way that he did.

This is not to comment on the relative merits of his decisions on the Grieve amendment in January, nor his rulings on repeat votes or granting of emergency debates under SO24. But in outing himself as a Remainer, Bercow left himself open to the charge of bias, which in turn undermined the position he holds so dear.

To Remainers, Bercow has become a spiritual figurehead. To Leavers, he has become an enemy. The irrationalities that come with the debate on the European Union have stripped away all shades of grey, even amongst those normally known for their nuance.

Known as a champion of backbenchers, his propensity to overreach in recent times could, ironically, limit the power of the very MPs he has sought to defend, should the House wish to curtail the powers of a Speaker in the future. The actions of his successor will help to define his legacy; if they choose to speak out in the way that he has done, the role of Speaker would have been remoulded.

Bercow entered the Chair pledging to restore trust in parliament and politicians. Though far from being solely responsible, he will leave with the reputation of the Commons in an even worse state of repair.

In February 2017, Bercow took the Speakership into uncharted territory. “I am very conscious that I am in office at a momentous time,” he said then. Whether or not he made a calculation that Brexit would be the means through which he could etch his place in history, only he can answer.

Sebastian Whale is The House magazine's political editor. His biography of John Bercow, Call to Order, will be published early 2020 

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