Is Bercow running scared?

The Speaker should fight Farage, not look for an unelected seat

It's worth reading all of Iain Dale's interview with John Bercow in this month's Total Politics, but what caught my eye was the suggestion that the Speaker should be given a separate constituency and be elected by MPs alone.

In response to a question about the challenge he faces at the next election (from the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage), Bercow floated the idea that the Speaker should be given a tailor-made constituency, named St Stephen's, after the historic Commons chapel.

Farage declared that the plan demonstrated the "bumptiousness and arrogance" of Bercow, adding that he "should stand and face the music".

In response to which, it's only fair to note that Bercow did not support the idea. He said: "My attitude is that, as such a decision would affect me directly, it's not right for me to be either an advocate of it or resistant to it."

In any case, the idea of a largely unelected Speaker is not an attractive one and Bercow has little to fear from Farage. Sitting Speakers have always faced challenges from maverick candidates. Michael Martin survived a challenge from the Scottish National Party at the last election.

As for the rest of the interview, Bercow deserves credit for this robust defence of his wife's political independence:

One thing I do think is quite wrong and unfair is for somebody to say: "Oh well, it's improper for the Speaker's wife to be engaged in acts of politics." That's wrong. It may well add to the spice of life, it might well cause me some difficulties in terms of press coverage, but to suggest that it's somehow constitutionally improper is quite wrong. And the simple reason for that is that the obligation for impartiality applies to me. It does not apply to Sally. And deep down I ask you to consider this, and hope you might even agree. It's a deeply sexist view based on the idea that the wife is my chattel.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.