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15 October 2018

The real problem with Westminster’s culture? The MPs who will not act

Labour MPs are likely to keep John Bercow in a job, despite calls for the Commons leadership to go over bullying allegations. 

By Patrick Maguire

In March, the former High Court judge Laura Cox was commissioned to conduct an inquiry into bullying and harassment in Westminster. Her report, released today, will make uncomfortable reading for John Bercow.

She describes a “culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”. As for the prospect of a cultural shift: “I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration.”

Cox explicitly states that that includes the Speaker. It was allegations of bullying against him – which he denies – which led to her probe. The report makes clear that, as far as she is concerned, wholesale structural change is needed within parliament and Bercow is part of the problem.

So what happens now? The short answer is almost certainly nothing. As damning as the report is for the Speaker, the chances of his departure remain slim. There is arguably no procedural avenue by which his critics could affect it: his status within parliament’s arcane and opaque power structures is near-omnipotent. The incoming chair of the Commons standards committee is Labour MP Kate Green, a longtime Bercow supporter who voted against allowing an investigation into the allegations against him. It is arguably the only body which could kick-start a process which might end with the Speaker going.  

He is similarly unlikely to go of his own volition, especially before the parliamentary side of the Brexit process is sewn up (a change of Speaker could alter, or heavily circumscribe, the course of the process). Paradoxically, that same process means Bercow’s many critics in the Conservative Party – both inside and outside of government – have neither the time nor inclination to devote their political energy to ousting him: as one put it to me when the allegations first broke, they have much bigger fish to fry. They might not like him, but have better things to do than dispense with him. 

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But what will ultimately save Bercow is the root cause of Westminster’s dysfunctional culture: politics. Only if a critical mass of Labour MPs break cover and call for the Speaker to go will there be any sense of urgency or obligation. There is plenty of unease on the Labour benches but change will only come if enough of them decides that this fight is worth having now.

Recent history suggests they won’t. In febrile times, the answer to the question of whether these as yet unproven and univestigated allegations are bad enough to override the many qualities in the Speaker they admire and benefit from is a self-interested “no”. The political consequences of getting rid of a reforming, executive-hostile Speaker in Bercow, they fear, would ultimately be more damaging than those they will face for not taking prompt action on bullying inside the bubble.

Unless something emerges that changes that dynamic, it is difficult to envisage Bercow doing anything but limping on into next year and departing on his own terms.