No 10 has gone in with its studs up on John Bercow. Quizzed on an outburst by the Speaker in which he allegedly called Andrea Leadsom a “stupid woman”, Theresa May’s spokesman said the remarks were “unacceptable” and called for a full investigation should a complaint be made. It is an unprecedentedly hostile intervention and amounts, in effect, to a declaration of war on the Speaker’s office.
I wrote yesterday that, in the wake of the decision of Parliament’s standards committee not to launch an investigation into historic bullying allegations against Bercow, it would take a new and substantive controversy for the campaign to oust the Speaker to have any hope of succeeding. Could this incident, which has not been denied by Bercow, be it?
It undoubtedly increases the pressure on the Speaker, but parse the statement in full and it’s hard to say that it will mark a watershed. May’s spokesman said she had “seen the alleged remarks and clearly thinks they are unacceptable. If a complaint is made then it should be fully investigated”.
The first and most important point, as has been the case at every stage of the row over Bercow’s behaviour, relates to procedure. I understand that Leadsom has no plans to complain herself. In a statement, the Leader of the House said: “I am focussed on ensuring that anyone who is bullied or treated unfairly in Parliament is able to come forward and have their concerns and complaints dealt with in a rigorous and fair manner.”
Government sources point out this does not close the door – other MPs who witnessed the outburst could launch complaints. If they did, then there would be no repeat of the controversial standards committee decision to block an investigation: the parliamentary commissioner for standards only needs its approval when cases are more than seven years old.
Leadsom’s decision not to engage, however, nonetheless diminishes the potency of the sting. A related problem is securing cast-iron proof: it is unclear whether video footage of the incident will be available. For now, the remarks remain alleged, if undenied by Bercow. Add to this the well-publicised shortcomings of the disciplinary procedures within Parliament – described as “bullshit” by one official to me this week – and it is hard to see this going as smoothly as some home.
The second is that, though the Prime Minister and many other MPs believe the alleged remarks are unacceptable, there is every chance that attempts by Team Bercow to spin the incident as a product of the Speaker’s combative relationship with the Tory establishment could satisfy his allies.
In a statement last night, a spokeswoman for his office spoke of an “unusual and controversial day in how business was handled in the House by the government” and of “strong and differing views expressed on all sides on the subject”. In the wake of earlier allegations of bullying against Bercow, several Labour MPs took similar lines.
Several have peddled the argument that in a high-pressure workplace where views are exchanged robustly, the Speaker’s alleged behaviour isn’t all that remarkable, or is at least offset by good work done elsewhere.
That No 10 has now moved from limited applications of pressure to outright hostility, could similarly amplify Labour’s defence. Take the following reply to a tweet from the NS which asked whether anything could destroy Bercow politically and suggested the Speaker’s critics were “running out of road”.
I hope not and good. He’s been a superb Speaker who has stood up for back bench rights & holding the Government to account and, critically, has selected vital back-bench amendments for debate & votes on #BrexitShambles.
— Ben Bradshaw (@BenPBradshaw) May 17, 2018
Any sense of government involvement in the campaign to oust Bercow – and that is how MPs such as Bradshaw will likely view this morning’s intervention – will only shore up his support. The waters continue to rise around the Speaker, but it will take more for the dam to break.