Why the John Bercow row is really about parliament itself

The attacks on the Speaker are about traditionalism, tribalism and anger at his political journey.

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If the right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors, where does that leave John Bercow? The Commons Speaker is once again under attack: a Tory backbencher called James Duddridge has tabled a motion of no confidence in him.

This is not the first attempt to unseat Bercow, who became Speaker in 2009. The last act of William Hague’s parliamentary career was his bid to change the rules on electing speakers in March 2015 – the final day the House sat before campaigning started. He wanted a secret ballot after the general election, hoping that it would flush out more backbenchers willing to topple Bercow.

Hague’s idea was opposed both by Labour – Angela Eagle called the motion “a petty and spiteful act” – and by many on his own side. The backbench Conservative MP Charles Walker said that he felt betrayed by the government ministers who had cooked up the plot in private, and that he had only found out about it the evening before. “How you treat people in this place is important,” said Walker, his voice wavering with emotion. “I have been played as a fool. And when I go home tonight, I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me, and I would much rather be an honourable fool in this and any other matter than a clever man.”

So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise to see Hague swinging back into action, condemning Bercow’s lack of impartiality in the Daily Telegraph. The Speaker’s offences are, first, announcing that Donald Trump should not be invited to give a speech to parliament and, second, telling a group of students that he had voted Remain in the EU referendum. In the most revealing line of his piece, Hague suggested that impartiality, once broken, could not be restored. “Why can’t a future speaker choose further subjects on which to expound, perhaps this time to the rage of the opposition?” he asked.

This is at the heart of the discontent with Bercow among a small band of Tories. They think that he is a traitor – far too sympathetic to Labour and to progressive values generally. It smarts all the more because Bercow has made the journey from (a brief) membership of the ultra-right-wing Monday Club – which opposed decolonisation and abhorred immigration – to being a social liberal. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go. Many Tories smugly see a flirtation with left-wing ideas as a forgivable youthful dalliance but confidently assert that people become more right-wing (and therefore wise) as they get older. When that journey happens in reverse, some find it an affront.

Bercow has also made enemies as a moderniser. He allowed the closure of Bellamy’s bar at 1 Parliament Street so a nursery could be installed on the site, and recently ordered Commons clerks to stop wearing wigs. (Sir Gerald Howarth was exercised about this, but if he’s keen on seeing men in wigs, he should rest assured there are establishments in Soho that still offer this opportunity.) Bercow also overruled the dean of Westminster Abbey to appoint the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin as chaplain to the Commons. She was both the first woman and the first black person to hold the role.

The row over Bercow is a proxy war. It’s about traditionalism and tribalism, and a personal dislike of his flashiness, as well as resentment over his barbs at senior MPs who are used to being treated with deference. For some Tories, there’s an impatience to get rid of Bercow, knowing that the next speaker will be from the Labour benches, because once they have dethroned that person, the job can go back to a “proper Tory”. (The expectation in Labour is that its candidate will be Chris Bryant, although whether the leadership will agree is an open question.)

Yet the situation is more complicated than a matter of red v blue. James Duddridge’s motion has so far failed to find widespread support because many backbenchers recognise that Bercow, despite his pomposity and pre-prepared zingers, is a useful ally. “He is not shy about his own importance in the system,” says one MP. “But he has allowed lots of urgent questions and will give debates more time if ministers are waffling on.” He also has a sense of humour about the absurdity of a job that involves telling grown adults not to shout, moo and bark at each other: his cat is called Order.

Bercow has a surprising number of backers among the Tory Awkward Squad, who recognise that he gave them room to talk about Brexit when David Cameron would have cheerfully squashed the issue. Allies of the Speaker point out that he allowed a third amendment on the Queen’s Speech in 2013, instead of the traditional two: John Baron’s cross-party motion regretting the absence of a EU referendum bill. This put more pressure on the government and contributed to Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum in his 2015 manifesto.

There is also a simpler explanation for the anti-Bercow briefings: ambition. “Duddridge saw this as a chance to curry favour with the government and rekindle his ministerial ambitions,” one staffer told me. “He’s gravely misjudged the situation.”

Theresa May does not viscerally dislike Bercow in the way that Cameron did and, during the sleepy half-term recess, the government was hoping for coverage of its Article 50 victory and of Labour’s by-election woes. Instead, these have been elbowed aside by navel-gazing and internal wrangling. Worse, the ostensible cause of the argument is Donald Trump, who even 26 per cent of Ukip supporters think is “dangerous”. Notably, the early day motion opposing the US president speaking in parliament got rather more signatures from MPs – 205 – than Duddridge’s effort.

So Bercow (and Order) are unlikely to be vacating the Speaker’s lavish apartments any time soon. Even when he does stand down, don’t expect the arguments to stop, because they are about parliament itself. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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