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8 March 2022

An apology on behalf of Remainers who downplayed John Bercow’s bullying

The former speaker’s defiance of Boris Johnson’s Brexiteering cannot excuse his reprehensible behaviour.

By Martin Fletcher

John Bercow, the former speaker of the House of Commons, was a “serial bully”. He belittled and threatened his staff, and was guilty of “intimidating, insulting behaviour involving an abuse of power”. He sought to deflect the complaints against him “by false accusations of collusion and by advancing lies”.

So says a corruscating report by an independent panel of experts released on 8 March – which has resulted in Bercow being banned from parliament for life. And it makes painful reading for fervent Remainers like myself. 

Back in the traumatic autumn of 2019, we regarded Bercow as something of a hero: he used his position to thwart the efforts of Boris Johnson’s minority government to ram the hardest possible Brexit through the Commons. As Johnson and his ministers invoked the so-called will of the people, sought unlawfully to prorogue parliament and incited hatred of their parliamentary opponents, the former speaker resolutely defended the right of elected MPs to scrutinise the executive’s plans and to act in what they considered the best interests of the nation. 

We Remainers, collectively, also sought to downplay or disregard the bullying charges against Bercow because we considered him to be on our side. Asked whether Brexit trumped allegations of abuse, the Labour MP Margaret Beckett told the BBC: “Abuse is terrible, it should be stopped… But yes, if it comes to the constitutional future of this country, the most difficult decision we have made… [in] hundreds of years, yes it trumps bad behaviour.”

But Remainers are not all saints, just as Leavers are not all wicked. Bercow’s bullying and lying was thoroughly reprehensible, as is his 800-word diatribe in response to the experts’ report – and we should belatedly come clean and say so. We cannot defend Bercow while simultaneously condemning Johnson and his fellow Tories for having rejected the parliamentary standards commissioner’s report that found the Tory MP Owen Paterson guilty of lobbying ministers on behalf of his private-sector paymasters.

We will simply have to grin and bear the inevitable glee of the Brexiteers and their echo chambers in the sycophantic right-wing press. That said, they should pause before they rush to claim the moral high ground. The Tories’ refusal to accept the Paterson report was not an isolated case. In a similar vein, Johnson refused to sack Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, after Alex Allan, his independent adviser on ministerial standards, found her guilty of bullying her civil servants. Allan resigned. Patel did not.

Johnson also dodged responsibility when Sue Gray’s initial report into “partygate” ruled that there had been “failures of leadership and judgement” in No 10. And when it comes to lying, of course, Johnson makes Bercow look like a model of truthfulness.

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