Can John Bercow Survive As Speaker?

Commons Speaker John Bercow’s reputation grows more and more tattered with each passing day. First, there were the accusations of bullying from two of his former private secretaries, one of whom was allegedly treated so badly that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, the former Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod said he’d been bullied by Bercow as well. Now, there are reports that the Speaker called the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, “a stupid woman” and “f***ing useless.”

Anyone can lose their cool in a moment of anger, but these allegations suggest that Bercow has a habit of lashing out when faced with people he finds frustrating. Such behavior is inappropriate in any walk of life, but it’s even less acceptable coming from the Speaker of the House of Commons. Bercow’s response to these accusations has been problematic as well. While he flatly denies the allegations of bullying behavior, he appears to have tacitly acknowledged making foul-mouthed remarks about Leadsom, blaming his behavior on “an unusual and controversial day” in the Commons where “strong and differing views were expressed.” But when Leadsom confronted him about the remarks, he appears to have been quite dismissive and may have even called her a liar.

I can’t say I’m surprised by these events. Bercow has always struck me as an arrogant figure. When he was first elected Speaker, he abandoned the tradition of wearing court dress beneath the gown, saying “it isn’t me.” But that was precisely the point: the old dress code de-emphasized the personality of the individual Speaker. By putting his own feelings front and center, Bercow exalted the occupant over the office. On the other hand, one of his predecessors, Lord Weatherill, once observed that “I don’t think the Speaker should be the star. Parliament should be a forum, not a stage.”

Unfortunately, Bercow has taken the speakership in the opposite direction. His chairmanship of the House’s proceedings is often showy. While he initially condemned the ‘Punch and Judy’ atmosphere that often prevails in the Commons, his shouty interventions from the Chair make him seem just as bad as everyone else (even his defenders admit that his interventions often come across as ‘egotistical showboating’). There have also been persistent accusations of bias against the Conservatives, even though Bercow was once a Tory himself.

Bercow’s time as Speaker has not been without merit, however. He is a strong advocate for backbenchers, and he is not afraid to hold ministers accountable to the House. His decision to make the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin his chaplain instead of a more establishment candidate was also commendable, even if it did ruffle some feathers at the time.[1] Bercow has also pursued an ambitious modernization agenda, though the results have been mixed. His resurrection of the urgent question was praiseworthy, but he also presided over a flawed selection process that almost resulted in the appointment of a patently unsuitable candidate as Clerk of the Commons.[2]

Despite the seriousness of the charges against Bercow, it seems that a critical mass of opposition has yet to develop. His supporters argue that the allegations are just sour grapes from traditionalists unhappy with his modernization agenda and his willingness to stand up to the Government, and the Commons’ own standards committee recently blocked the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from investigating the accusations of bullying. But his outburst toward Andrea Leadsom could prove to be the tipping point.

It’s also possible that MPs are waiting to see if Bercow will honor his pledge to stand down after nine years in office. That anniversary will occur on June 22, and it would be easier for MPs if he left voluntarily without being pushed. But if he tries to remain in the Chair, the tide could turn against him quite quickly.


[1] For many years, the Speaker’s chaplain was also the Rector of St. Margaret’s, Westminster (Parliament’s ‘parish church’), which meant the chaplain was effectively chosen by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. But when the two offices fell vacant in 2010, Bercow was unhappy with the Dean and Chapter’s proposed successor, arguing that the post shouldn’t go to “another white, middle-aged man.” He ended up making Hudson-Wilkin his chaplain instead..

[2] Even though the Clerk is supposed to be the House’s principal procedural adviser, the initial choice for the job was Carol Mills, an outsider from Australia with little knowledge of British parliamentary procedure. After an outcry, her appointment was ‘paused’ and the selection process ultimately started from scratch, though she did not put herself forward for consideration a second time. Bercow later blamed everyone but himself for the fiasco.

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