When he became Speaker, John Bercow scrapped much of the traditional regalia of that office. At the time, it was hailed in many quarters as the first move of a modernising Speaker who would bring Parliament into the 21st Century.
In fact, it has proven a telling auger of most of the problems that have dogged his overlong time in office.
Although he has not been without good ideas, Bercow fails the basic test that a Speaker should be acceptable to both sides of the House of Commons. As our editor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the Conservative benches clearly want rid of him.
Then we have his grandstanding in the Chamber, especially during Prime Minister’s Questions, and a willingness to clash with Government ministers which has led to today’s pressure on him over alleged comments about Andrea Leadsom. Or his speaking up over the prospect of Donald Trump addressing Parliament without consulting his counterpart, the Lord Speaker.
Running through these various shortcomings is a common thread: Bercow letting his personal identity intrude upon, and often completely overshadow, his role as Speaker.
One of the crucial functions of traditional regalia is that it anonymises the office-holder beneath the office, making the individual man or woman less important than the role symbolised by the uniform. The wig and robes meant that anybody observing the Commons chamber saw, first and foremost, ‘the Speaker’.
Regalia thus asks a degree of humility on the part of the wearer, not to mention sufficient self-confidence to shrug off the scorn of modish, modernising sorts. Bercow possesses neither of these qualities, and thus said of the wig: “It’s not me”. That was the point: the Speakership was not supposed to be about him.
(Of course, Bercow’s disdain for the traditions of the House does not extend to even the pettiest privileges of the role).
This is why whoever follows him as Speaker should restore the traditional uniform (for the clerks too). It’s not just a matter of reactionary aesthetic sensibilities: the regalia played – and can play again – an important role in the proper functioning of the Speakership.