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14 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

The John Bercow bullying allegations reveal a deeper problem in parliament

The unbridled power of the Speaker is alarming, but it’s a constitutional feature not a bug.

By Dulcie Lee

When John Bercow was first elected Speaker of the House of Commons on 22 June 2009, he promised to only serve nine years. By his own deadline, these should be his last 40 days in post. 

The timing might be an extraordinary display of prescience: he’s faced a slew of bullying accusations over the last few weeks (all of which he denies). And the scandal looks like it has life in it yet – only today it emerged that parliamentary staff were asked to help “spin” the Speaker’s defence.

Since 2009, Bercow’s self-imposed departure date has gone out the window and only last week he indicated he wanted to continue. Rather bizarrely then, Tory grandee Sir Peter Bottomley said today he was confident Bercow would go by 22 June.

But if he refuses to go, what can be done? Well, surprisingly little.

Of course, the Speaker can resign out of shame or self-interest (or whatever else motivates politicians these days). And they’re also subject to the same rules as other MPs including, if it came to it, expulsion, which would then leave the Speaker’s seat vacant.

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Someone could also wait until the next Speaker is elected just before a general election and stand against him, but it’s now looking fairly unlikely we’ll be facing one of those anytime soon (right guys? Please?).

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Bercow’s bullying saga has unearthed a constitutional oddity exposing a deeper problem: there is effectively no constitutional means to remove a Speaker from their post during the course of a parliament.

You’d think that there would be some way to boot out the effective CEO of parliament if needed, but in fact, this legal omission is deliberate. As it goes with the British constitution, a number of historic moments have added up to define the situation, and the thinking is thus: the Speaker is defined by their independence. They must be able to oversee debates without fear or favour, confident that no one will be able to oust them for disagreeing with their rulings. So then in order to operate freely the Speaker must be invulnerable to direct attack.

And herein lies the problem. While this invulnerability is a vital barrier to mischievous MPs, it has become patently clear (as if it wasn’t already) through the #MeToo movement that unbridled power opens the door to unchecked abuse.

The power dynamic that comes with the Speaker’s role isn’t exactly something you’d find in modern workplaces – after Newsnight aired the allegations, Green party leader Caroline Lucas tabled an urgent question in response. The person that decides whether that question gets heard? You guessed it, John Bercow.

While he wouldn’t get away with stifling such a debate, it’s still an unacceptable setup. Imagine wanting to complain about a senior person in your company, and having to go to that person to ask to discuss it, and then have them facilitate that discussion with you and your colleagues. Awks, at best.

And while the press plays a very important role in tearing down people they deem unfit for public office, this isn’t always using a precise, balanced, or just approach (see most of the major political resignations – or lack of in Boris Johnson’s case – of the last few years).

The Speaker also needs to keep the confidence of the House in order to operate – but this isn’t a particularly effective tool for removal, even if there are legitimate grounds to do so. The problem is that these methods depend on the violation of the social norms of the time, and what’s deemed ‘acceptable’ and trustworthy – and history shows us standards ain’t what we imagine they are. When women are still not believed about sexual assaults and abuses of power, we cannot rely on these types of public trials to weed people out.

This problem is bigger than John Bercow. And regardless of Bercow’s future, this is another of the many power imbalances in parliament that needs to be unpicked.