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16 October 2018

John Bercow’s exit timetable allows self-interested Labour MPs to keep having it both ways

The Speaker has given his Labour supporters cover by signalling he will go more or less as soon as Brexit is wrapped up, with an independent inquiry investigating bullying allegations in the meantime.

By Patrick Maguire

John Bercow has told friends he will step down next summer, the BBC has reported.

His setting out of a resignation timetable along these lines isn’t new – The Times revealed in June that he had privately signalled his intention to go after seeing out Brexit – but the timing is certainly interesting.

This afternoon the Speaker – for the second time this year – spent over an hour chairing a Commons debate that, as far as many MPs were concerned, was about him.

Laura Cox’s inquiry into bullying and harassment in parliament, released on Monday, suggested that Bercow – who himself denies several accusations of bullying – and the rest of the Commons authorities would have to go if meaningful cultural change were to be effected.

Those MPs who participated in this afternoon’s urgent question engaged with that suggestion with varying degrees of sincerity, and found themselves divided into what are by now depressingly familiar camps.

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On one side are the Conservative MPs who have made it their mission to see Bercow ousted – quixotic and divisive backbenchers like James Duddridge and Andrew Bridgen, who have found common cause with colleagues like Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, and Kevin Barron, the former Labour chair of the Commons standards commission.

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On the other is the bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party, on the basic calculation that Bercow’s reforming zeal, and his willingness to allow backbenchers to challenge the executive and stewardship of Brexit are too important and politically valuable to lose. They also abhor the tactics of the Speaker’s Tory adversaries. Their game is bird-in-the-handery with a side of tribal sanctimony.  

Then there are those who, throughout this grim process, have fought for the victims. One of them, Jess Phillips, made the most powerful contribution of the debate with an attack on Duddridge, who she accused of using the bullying scandal to realise his political dream of ousting Bercow.

Stressing that – unlike many of her fellow Labour MPs – she was not in the business of defending the Speaker, she said:

“I have spoken to hundreds of people throughout this process…the member for Rochford [Bercow critic James Duddridge] has probably spoken to none of them.

“Some of us don’t actually care who it is, who is the offender, it is the victims that we care about, and we will not use it for political gain, and nothing fills the victims with dread than when people play with their feelings.

“So don’t do it. Don’t do it in here. Don’t do it for them. You are speaking only for yourself.”

All very damning and justified. But it’s difficult to square those words with those of her colleague Emily Thornberry this morning:

“I think this is absolutely not the time to be changing Speaker. We don’t know, for example, with regard to Brexit, as to what is going to happen.

“Whether there is going to be, technically, an amendable motion, or not. Whether it will be the Speaker’s discretion as to whether it is.

“We do need to have all hands to the deck at the moment. I don’t work with him on a day-to-day basis, but people who I know and respect do, and they say that he is a fine Speaker.”

Bluntly, Labour MPs are also using parliament’s bullying scandal for political gain and have admitted it. Their calls to outsource investigation of specific allegations to a new independent inquiry – also made by the Speaker this afternoon – allow them to park the issue of Bercow himself. They said they wanted to focus on process, not people. It just so happens that one of the people in question is very useful to them indeed.

So it is with Bercow’s own departure process. For his supporters on the Labour benches, nothing is more important than Brexit until it’s over. That the Speaker has signalled he will go more or less as soon as it is wrapped up, with an independent inquiry investigating him behind a cordon sanitaire in the meantime, nullifies the question that they spent most of today refusing to answer with any sincerity. Labour MPs will still be able to have it both ways. Bully for them.