Bobby Friedman is a barrister, broadcaster, and the biographer of John Bercow.
Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. And it’s not in the interests of a political biographer to see the downfall of his subject of choice: where would Boswell have been without Johnson (Samuel, not Boris, of course)?
It might, therefore, come as something of a surprise that, as John Bercow’s biographer, I’ve reached the conclusion that the Conservatives should run a candidate against him in his Buckingham constituency at the – surely inevitable – general election in the coming months. It’s a view I’ve come to reluctantly, not least because, for much of his Speakership, Bercow was highly effective, bringing some much-needed zest to the role, standing up for backbenchers and enabling effective scrutiny of the government – all with a suitable degree of rhetorical panache.
But – at least in this turkey’s view – Bercow’s chickens need to come home to roost. As he clings on to the Speaker’s chair, after ten years in the job and a further five in the offing, the time has come for voters in the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Buckingham to have their say, after three elections in which they’ve been denied a genuine choice of MP.
The most powerful factor against such a dramatic step is that there’s a convention that the Speaker be allowed to run unopposed at a general election. However, contrary to popular belief, the apparent convention is broken almost as much as it’s respected. Throughout the 20th century, Speakers regularly faced full-throttle opposition from a candidate put up by one of the main parties – Bernard Weatherill being the most recent example, in 1987. Even now, the convention is routinely ignored by parties such as UKIP and the Greens, who’ve both contested Bercow’s seat in recent years.
There are good reasons why the Speaker should, in most cases, be given a free run. When the Speaker does his job properly, he or she stays above party politics and remains impartial, which naturally makes it impossible to run a proper, political re-election campaign.
But Bercow has torn up the rules of the Speakership in so many ways – usually to benefit either himself or the causes he espouses – that he can hardly say that the usual rules must continue to apply.
While there has never been a Speaker who’s had to face an opponent from his former party, there’s also never been a Speaker who has taken such a nakedly political stance, so clearly contrary to the interests of the leadership of the party of which he used to be a member.
Bercow has made it a personal challenge to lead the Remain cause from the front. He has become the most fervent (and most effective) opponent to the Government’s policy on Brexit in the Commons, as one ruling after another from the Chair (and the casual glances to the opposition benches for support) can attest. The Speaker has cast off any pretence of impartiality, and so, in an election that’s all about Brexit, his constituents should be given the chance to back him or sack him based on his publicly-expressed views, as with any other MP.
Nor does it lie in Bercow’s mouth to complain about changing a convention as circumstances move on. After all, it was Bercow who tore up precedent to allow amendments to be made to a government business motion earlier this year – a step that was of substantial assistance to Remain MPs, funnily enough.
This is not, however, only about Brexit. He is already the longest-serving Speaker since the war, having shown a remarkable ability to see off each and every threat to his position over the years. When he was elected, he wrote to MPs stating that a Speaker should only be in post for “reasonable period of time” and promising that he would serve for a maximum of nine years. His time was up in June 2018, but he’s carried on regardless.
Bercow may wish to pretend that he didn’t make this promise, but the prospect of him outstaying his self-imposed time limit by no less than six years is every reason to allow his constituents to make a genuine choice. Buckingham consistently sees the highest number of spoiled ballot papers of any constituency in the country, and he himself admitted on election night 2017 that these were “expressions of discontent”. If Bercow has his way, there will be Buckingham constituents who might reach close to the age of 40 without having had the chance to cast a vote between the major parties at a General Election; this is, simply, undemocratic.
More pressingly still, Bercow was the subject of numerous bullying allegations (which he denies) in 2018, at which time his “friends” let it be known that he’d stand down in summer 2019 – with predictable consequences once the furore died down. As Jess Phillips put it, “A fish rots from the head…The fish is parliament and the head is the Speaker, John Bercow.” Why should Buckingham voters be denied the chance to give their verdict on allegations that could have led to the whip being withdrawn if Bercow were still a Tory MP?
Most fundamentally of all, however, our politics are at a crossroads. Whichever side you are on, Leave or Remain, it’s near impossible not to be concerned by the poisoning of our political culture. As I watched Bercow in the Commons after the vote on Tuesday night, face contorted as he tore into Michael Gove (and bringing Gove’s kids into it, for good measure), it was obvious that, at a time when we want to be healing political divisions, Bercow is entrenching them.
His partisanship, and his hectoring, now feed into the nastiness that is destroying our political discourse. His replacement, whether it be Lindsay Hoyle, Harriet Harman, Eleanor Laing, or anyone else for that matter, would surely help to dampen the fire, whereas Bercow serves only to stoke it.
Of course, it’s not for me to decide. That privilege goes to the people of Buckingham, who may well choose to re-elect a man who is, by all accounts, a hard-working constituency MP. But they should be given the meaningful chance to decide. Buckingham Tories need to run a candidate, and then let the voters have their say for the first time in 14 years.