The power of the Speaker of the House of Commons has never been greater or more crucial. John Bercow’s flagrant misuse or blatant creativity when it comes to the application of parliamentary practice is breathtaking, worse still is Labour’s blind eye to the entire affair.
Bercow’s tenure as Speaker, in the eyes of many started positively. A series of reforms proved popular, such as the frequent granting urgent questions. The issuance of urgent questions has proved effective in holding ministers to account following major scandals, such as Windrush. Furthermore, Bercow managed to encapsulate public frustrations with the archaic and fruitless Prime Minister's questions when he subdued David Cameron’s tendency towards adversarial mudslinging, generating far more constructive scrutiny.
However despite Bercow’s sanctimonious put-downs, frequently re-iterating his need for assistance from sedentary members, his behaviour is representative of the wider culture of bullying and harassment within Westminster.
Bercow himself has been subject to claims of bullying, his own private secretary and a clerk claim extensive verbal abuse was made towards them from Bercow. Dame Laura Cox’s report explained the need for a complete overhaul of senior management in the house. The report stated that a ‘culture of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence’ was rampant in the house.
Cox's report was supposed to be a monumental shift in parliamentary culture. However, as expected, it was kicked into the long grass by senior figures within the Commons – never to truly see the light of day – leaving limited impact and little change in senior commons staff or practice.
In a truly unpalatable case of partisanship, Labour MPs were the first to come to Bercow’s defence. Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, cited the need for continuity throughout the Brexit process: ‘I think that this is absolutely not the time to be changing Speaker. We don't know, for example, with regard to Brexit, what is going to happen.’
Labour’s willingness to have a bully, or someone who oversaw bullying, in the House for political gain is entirely counter-intuitive to what Parliament needs.
The currently uncharted waters in terms of parliamentary practice leaves the Speaker with the ability to wield significant power. Such ambiguity has allowed Bercow to find abstract and arbitrary conventions to justify his actions. Such behaviour during Brexit further displays his flagrant disregard for politically neutrality whilst acting as Speaker. It is no secret that Bercow is intent on frustrating the Brexit process.
This can be seen from his arbitrary use and application of arcane Commons procedure to prevent the government from bringing back its Withdrawal Agreement. This is no more than a poorly guised attempt to force the House away from a deal, making the most likely outcome not a no-deal Brexit but rather a return to the people via a so-called people’s vote.
Adding further to his vendetta against May’s Withdrawal Agreement was Bercow’s unwillingness to add any amendments to its third vote. Gareth Snell’s amendment would have given power to Parliament in debating post-Brexit departure, thereby gaining the support a number of pro-Brexit Labour MPs in what could have played a decisive part in the passing of May’s deal.
Bercow’s tenure as Speaker began positively, but his complicity in the bullying culture and his lack of respect for political neutrality in the role means it’s time for him to pass the baton onto a Speaker committed to delivering Brexit as well as moving past piecemeal reform in parliamentary culture.