The BBC reports that a Conservative backbencher has launched a bid to remove John Bercow from the Speaker’s chair after he said that Donald Trump should not address Parliament in Westminster Hall when he pays a state visit to the United Kingdom. Once again, the ‘Marmite Speaker’ is embroiled in controversy. But why is this such a controversial issue, and could it really drive him from office?
In order to understand the flap over Bercow’s Trump remarks, it’s important to remember, unlike the Speaker of the House of Representatives in America, the Speaker of the House of Commons is supposed to be politically impartial. This convention is taken very seriously. Upon taking the chair, the Speaker resigns their party membership, and they are expected to remain apolitical even after leaving office, which is why former Speakers sit as Crossbenchers in the House of Lords.
Bercow’s criticism of Trump has stretched this convention to the breaking point. The merits of his position are beside the point. It’s not the Speaker’s place to weigh in on public controversies. Nor can he claim to be speaking on behalf of MPs since the House has not taken a stance on the matter (Bercow would do well to reflect on the words of his seventeenth-century predecessor, William Lenthall: “I have, Sir, neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak, in this place, but as the house is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”!). Furthermore, Bercow’s actions were profoundly discourteous to the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords and the Lord Great Chamberlain. They too must sign off on any address by Trump, yet Bercow evidently failed to consult them before making his pronouncement.
Unfortunately, this behavior is par for the course with Bercow. He has a tendency toward self aggrandizement that manifests in ways both large and small. When he first took office, he decided that he wouldn’t wear court dress beneath his gown as tradition dictated (while his two immediate predecessors also changed the Speaker’s outfit, they struck a much better balance between modernity and tradition). Bercow (a straight, cisgendered man) also incorporated LGBT-related imagery into his official coat of arms. While he does have a commendable record when it comes to LGBT rights, his use of the Pride flag and pink triangles seems more than a little presumptuous.
Far more problematic is Bercow’s behavior in the chair. He has a reputation for making snarky comments that often seem mean-spirited. These remarks make nice soundbites, but in the end they damage the office of Speaker. Chairing the Commons is a difficult task, as MPs can test the patience of even the most even-tempered Speaker. It’s vital that the Speaker keep their cool at all times, and they cannot allow MPs to rattle them (I can’t imagine Betty Boothroyd or Bernard Weatherill getting into a shouting match with the Government Chief Whip!) There is also a feeling among many Conservative MPs that Bercow is biased against them, despite the fact that he was a Tory before assuming the chair. Ultimately, this is a subjective issue that cannot be proven or disproven, but the fact that a significant number of MPs question his impartiality is a serious strike against him.
To be fair, Bercow’s track record as Speaker is not wholly bad. He does stand up for backbenchers, and his rulings made it easier for Euroskeptic backbenchers to pressure David Cameron into allowing a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. His willingness to allow Urgent Questions has put ministers on the hot seat more often. These things balanced out his foibles for many years, but the Trump controversy may finally tip the scales in the opposite direction.
But for now, Bercow is probably safe. The motion of no confidence is in the form of an Early Day Motion, which are almost never debated let alone voted on. In theory, either the Government or the Opposition could place the motion on the agenda, but that’s unlikely to happen. The Backbench Business Committee could decide to give the motion parliamentary time, but that seems like a long shot, too. But you don’t necessarily need a formal vote of no confidence to force a Speaker from office. Bercow’s immediate predecessor, Michael Martin, ended up resigning even though only 22 MPs had signed a motion of no confidence in him (though many MPs were calling for his resignation from the floor of the House). Something similar might well happen to Bercow. If his opponents can get MPs from across the House to put pressure on the Speaker, he will almost certainly throw in the towel. It’s a tall order, but not beyond the realm of possibility.