The point about conventions, as opposed to rules, is that they are unwritten, and rely on the character of those charged with honouring them to so do. In some senses that matter, John Bercow has not been a bad speaker. It can’t be claimed that he is the creature of ministers and it can be, with some justice, that he is an ally of backbenchers, or at least those that he hasn’t taken against.
But in others that matter more, he must be the worst-ever occupant of the Speakers’ chair. The convention is that the person who sits in it isn’t a creation of party. Even the mice in the Commons tea room know that Bercow was put in place by Labour MPs and is kept there by Labour MPs. Whatever the truth may be of accusations of bullying in private made against him personally – which he denies – it is indisputably true that he is a bully in public. Swathed in the giant cloak of the Speaker’s office, he is empowered to mimic, humiliate, belittle and discriminate against those he doesn’t like, secure in the knowledge that Labour MPs will protect him – and that the garment won’t be pulled away to reveal the smaller person beneath it.
Even more to the present point, Laura Cox, the retired judge appointed to investigate claims of a culture of bullying and harrassment, concluded as follows in her report: “I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration.” That is the kind of masterly understatement that could only have been pronounced by a member of the British judiciary. In plain terms, it is a call for Bercow to quit. Kevin Barron, the former Chairman of the Standards Committee, has said that new leadership is needed. So at least one Labour MP can see and speak plainly. So has Maria Miller, the chair of the Culture Select Committee.
A letter calling for the implementation of the Cox report’s recommendations has been signed by 80 current and former staff members. As one of them, Hannah White, pointed out: “it’s deeply counter-cultural for House staff to speak out in this way – it demonstrates the depth of their frustration with MPs’ response to the Cox Report.” And today, three Conservative MPs have resigned from a committee that the Speaker set up on making Parliament more representative. They are Anne Milton, Mims Davies and Will Quince. Jess Phillips, the independent-minded Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, a member of the committee, has already joined Miller, another member, in saying that Bercow should quit.
The Speaker’s response to the Cox report has been to play for time – or, to put it more elaborately, call for a new investigation now that her investigation has reported. “Friends” of Bercow have reportedly briefed that he is prepared to stand down next year. These briefings have not been confirmed. Not that it would count much if they were. The Speaker is already in breach of his promise to stand down after nine years. That would have meant him leaving his post on June 22. The date today is October 24. And today, the House of Commons Commission will meet to consider its response to the Cox Report. Bercow has recused himself from chairing the meeting – but will, please note, be present.
Andrea Leadsom wants an independent probe of how the Commons is governed, which would look at the accountability of senior management, including the Speaker. And Labour has joined her in saying that the recent grievance procedure set up this year should be “open to historical complaints…as quickly as possible”.
But what counts most is not the future grinding of these Parliamentary mills, but the present position of Bercow. Margaret Beckett let the rat out of the bag when she said that the Brexit debate “trumps bad behaviour”. As has been pointed out, if we managed to change Prime Minister during a world war, we can surely cope with changing the Speaker during the Brexit talks.
Beckett’s words should be hung like a placard round the neck of every Labour MP who has ever condemned the bullying and harrassment of women, and is not part of the movement to find a new and better Speaker. Jeremy Corbyn’s formal distancing of the party from Bercow is not enough. What counts now is what Labour MPs do informally, amidst the maze of Commons precedents and procedures.
The most famous words uttered by an occupant of the chair are Speaker Lenthall’s: “I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak, in this place, but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”. Substitute “Labour MPs” for ” this House”, and you have Bercow’s situation in a sentence. This anti-Lenthall should be shoved off to the Lords, where he will be free to join the party that put him in charge of the Commons.