Margaret Beckett has had the decency to end the charade that Labour MPs have been playing all day: by telling the BBC’s Chris Mason that it is more important to guarantee that the Speaker of the House of Commons gives Parliament maximum manoeuvrability over Brexit than to take action over bullying. The interview came after an independent inquiry into workplace harassment in Parliament was sharply critical of John Bercow and said that the present leadership of the House was incapable of bringing about meaningful reform.
Beckett’s remarks are worth quoting in full: “Yes, if it comes to it, the constitutional future of this country, the most difficult decision we’ve made for hundreds of years, yes, it trumps bad behaviour.”
There are three important things to note here: the first is that we should thank Beckett for having the honesty to say what many of her parliamentary colleagues (honourable exceptions include Ben Bradshaw and Emily Thornberry) have not.
Most Labour MPs have behaved thoroughly shamefully today in the House of Commons: criticising Bercow’s regular opponents for calling on him to go, accusing them of bullying and in general pulling a number of double-faced tricks rather than admit the plain truth: that they’ve decided that toleration of workplace bullying is a price they are willing to pay if it delivers the right Brexit. They aren’t the only ones – Caroline Lucas also demeaned herself by saying that it was Bercow’s critics who were engaging in bullying behaviour – but they are the only people in Parliament who sit for a party whose literal name suggests a least a measure of support for workplace rights.
It’s true to say that there are opponents of Bercow’s who would call for him to stand down come what may – but Laura Cox, the High Court judge tasked with investigating the Commons’ culture and practices, is not, unless the parliamentary Labour party is sitting on the scoop of a century, a Conservative opponent of Bercow’s modernising tenure.
The second is that Beckett has a point. Bercow denies the charges against him, but even if they are true, his influence and impact, his commitment to holding the executive to account make him an asset that any parliamentarian would be mad to put aside. And as grim as it is, the eventual shape of Brexit will have a significant and lasting impact on sixty million people, while leaving a culture of workplace bullying and sexual harassment in place at Westminster will have a significant and lasting impact on the lives of at best, a few thousand people. Labour MPs should have the courage and the integrity to make that argument explicitly and to own the consequences of that, rather than engage in the sophistry they’ve retreated to today.
But the third important thing – and the problem with Beckett’s argument – is that the calculation isn’t correct. If there is a majority in Parliament to assert the rights of MPs and drastically alter the direction of the Brexit process, there is also a majority in Parliament to ensure that a new Speaker of the House will allow that majority to assert itself. It is just crazy to claim that there are MPs who are going to defy the government over Brexit who would first vote for a Speaker who would frustrate that aim.
If it is Labour MPs’ honest belief that they are actually so tactically inept that the only way they can guarantee not sabotaging their hopes of changing Britain’s trajectory over Brexit is to keep John Bercow in place: fine. In that case, a couple of ruined careers and lives in the Palace of Westminster is a small price to weigh in the balance. But let them at least be honest about that argument, about their own incompetence, and about the price that they have decided that other people should have to pay for it.