There is no formal rule proclaiming that a Speaker must be acceptable to all the major parties, but there is an informal understanding that this must be so. If this were not the case, after all, his legitimacy would be fatally wounded. Since we can be sure that only a few Conservative MPs voted for John Bercow and that very many were opposed to his election, it follows that his legitimacy was damaged at the start. Post-election, it was thus vital for him to repair it – and quickly.
In some ways, he has not turned out to be a bad Speaker at all. He has speeded up Commons business. He grants more Opposition requests for Government statements, which in principle is no bad thing. He has a tense relationship with Downing Street – which, in itself, is no bad thing, either: the legislature shouldn’t be a patsy for the executive, and part of the Speaker’s role is to, well, speak for it. (It’s worth remembering that Bernard Weatherill, the last former Tory MP to hold the post before Bercow, was not on easy terms with Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister.)
That he likes to place himself at the centre of the Commons proceedings isn’t an automatic disqualification for serving as Speaker. It isn’t to my taste – but I am, for better or worse, no longer part of the electorate that decides the fate of speakers. The testy relationship with his staff that has surfaced in the row about Carol Mills’s proposed appointment is more of a problem. Something – no, a lot – has clearly gone wrong somewhere, when the outgoing Clerk refuses to deny that he has kept a diary of alleged Bercow “outbursts”, and that male officials rejected for the appointment are said to be ready to sue. Betty Boothroyd’s intervention yesterday criticising the Mills decision was extraordinary: former Speakers don’t usually come forward to criticise their successors.
These problems will doubtless be dismissed as fuddy-duddy “snobs” attempting to hold back a thrusting, energetic, modernising Speaker – and the claim might hold water had Bercow been able to dispel the cloud of illegitimacy that hung over his election right from the start. Very simply, he hasn’t. A large body of Conservative MPs remain opposed to him. In public, Rob Wilson, Michael Fabricant and Simon Burns, among others, have spoken out. Wilson, until recently George Osborne’s PPS, even publishes a Bercow bias index. I believe that it would have been hard for him to set this up and keep it going without the blessing of the Whips. In private, other Tory MPs mutter resentfully about rudeness, partiality, put-downs and outbursts (that word again) from the Speaker’s chair.
At the death, the question of Bercow boils down to a question of character – as it does, in one way or another, for all the rest of us. Conservative MPs could probably have got over his journey from the Monday Club’s Immigration and Repatriation Committee to the very borders of New Labour country. (Lord Spicer’s Diaries contain some enlightening dispatches about his rumoured would-be defection). But many believe he has carried on in the Chair more or less where he left off on the Conservative backbenches.
Who knows what has brought matters to this pass – a real change of political heart, a notoriously prickly relationship with Michael Howard, frustrated leadership ambition? The question is unanswerable. What is certain is that matters shouldn’t carry on like this. Unless Bercow’s speakership implodes over the next year, the key date is the election of the Speaker in the next Parliament. Lindsay Hoyle, one of the present deputy speakers, would be an acceptable replacement for all sides.
It is admittedly odd for a Conservative website to urge the election of a Labour speaker. But the Commons has a problem when so many Tory MPs believe that we have one already.