John Bercow’s political views have changed dramatically since I knew him in the Federation of Conservative Students. But I don’t believe his character has changed. Some aspects of him are admirable – there is the tenacity and determination. However there are other aspects – his petulant bearing of grudges and obsessive regard for his own interests – which are serious flaws. They made him a spectacularly unsuitable choice for Commons Speaker in the first place.
Another feature of Mr Bercow which has not changed is his verbosity. Prime Minister’s Question Time has turned into the John Bercow Show – with his demands for brevity becoming ever more loquacious.
Furthermore Mr Bercow was among the worst offenders in the MPs expenses scandal – flipping his designated main residences had the effect of avoiding Capital Gains Tax. The willingness of MPs to choose him as Speaker despite that showed an alarming contempt for the public.
Mr Bercow was elected as the Labour Speaker and he has presided as the Labour Speaker. That diminishes Parliament. Even those with the most limited interest in procedure will appreciate the need to anyone holding that role to act impartially. It needs someone who is able to put to aside personal resentments and political allegiance in order to apply the rules fairly. It is best served by someone who is courteous and restrained rather than antagonistic and attention seeking.
As Peter Oborne has said:
He has been the emblematic Speaker of an age of social and political narcissism, when individuals believe they matter more than the institutions they represent.
It would not be impossible to find such a figure. Paul Goodman recently urged that Mr Bercow should be replaced by Lindsay Hoyle, a Labour MP and one of the Deputy Speakers.
Why has criticism of Mr Bercow reached such a crescendo during the recess? It is because of his demand that Carol Mills, an unqualified Australian should be made the Chief Clerk. Erskine May, the Parliamentary rule book, is complicated. Finding someone ignorant for the post of Chief Clerk would allow Mr Bercow to be unchallenged. It would remove the traditional checks and balances. A further concern is that Miss Mills is under investigation by the Australian Senate for the failings in her Department. The choice of her for the post – and how that choice has come to be made – raises all sorts of questions. Simon Carr lists 19 of them over on Guido.
Mr Bercow is not given to contrition. That makes a face saving compromise harder to achieve. However Mr Bercow is reportedly willing to consider splitting the role. Miss Mills would become a Chief Executive for Parliament with someone else as Clerk. But this would leave various problems. It would mean a new £200,000 a year post – to be paid out of the taxes of “hard working people”. It would also imply that the new clerk was was be subordinate to Miss Mills. Then there would also be plenty of people who would feel that Miss Mills would still be an unsuitable choice.
Thus there appears to be a collision course. So will Mr Bercow go? I doubt he would resign – that would not be in his nature. I would also be surprised if he was voted out this side of the election. Those tribal Labour MPs who put Party before Parliament in supporting him in the first place doubtless feel he has fulfilled his side of the bargain. So far as the Government is concerned there is little appetite for a confrontation a few months from an election – however irritating Mr Bercow might be.
With all that is going on in Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq wouldn’t many voters be puzzled at such an esoteric row? Does it matter? It does – if one accepts that Parliamentary democracy matters. The unheroic political calculation of the Government may be that the public will be unlikely to have any sense of alarm over it.
So my prediction is that the sketch writers will continue to Speaker Bercow to kick around – at least until the General Election. He will survive in his post until the next Parliament- even though he shouldn’t.