Plot to oust Speaker John Bercow just crude revenge

Published by The Guardian (26th March, 2015)

John Bercow does not find it difficult to give offence, which is never the most endearing trait in a politician and especially one who bangs on about the importance of ‘interpersonal skills.’  He is prone to pomposity, his florid oratory can sound oleaginous and his carefully crafted interventions often come across as egotistical showboating. His background also arouses suspicion: having entered politics as an unsavoury hard-right headbanger, he then swung so sharply left that many in his party were left questioning if he was still one of them.

Since becoming the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons six years ago, he has underlined this extraordinary knack for being his own worst enemy, clearly enjoying the trappings of power that go with the frippery and finery of his elevated position as he cuts down cabinet ministers in mid-flow. But for all his obvious personal failings, Bercow does not deserve to be kicked out of his beanwood chair since ultimately he is on the side of the angels in seeking to salvage a shattered institution at the heart of our battered democracy.

This is why his supporters include many members of Westminster’s awkward squad, even if some were bribed with paid membership of his Chairman’s Panel. It is also why enemies in the coalition government embarked on their failed effort to remove a speaker once described as a ‘stupid, sanctimonious dwarf’ by a minister he had rebuked. They loathe him with unusual fervour, bemoaning his preening, his preaching, his rudeness and his obvious bias toward their foes. So they launched a self-serving plot to be rid of him.

Sadly this was redolent of student politics at its worst and just crude revenge. Bercow was elected – largely with Labour and Liberal Democrat votes – as a reformist, his bumbling predecessor forced from office amid the furore of the expenses scandal that sealed the electorate’s breach of trust with Westminster. Given that he confesses to “spectacular” bad behaviour during his time as an active but boorish backbencher, this was the classic choice of a poacher for gamekeeper – and as so often in such circumstances, it turned out to be an interesting appointment.

Bercow has ditched some of the more absurd regalia worn by the speaker, moved to increase diversity among the 1,750-strong workforce and sought to make parliament more accessible to the people who fund the place. These were all the right moves to make for an archaic institution that has grown distant from the electorate, although he bungled terribly the appointment of a new clerk of the house.

But what really riled his enemies is the way he tilted the balance back a little towards the legislature in the struggle to hold Whitehall accountable. He has boosted the power of backbenchers against the executive – and for this, he deserves praise, not sacking. Since he began sitting in the Speaker’s chair, ministers have been made to appear before the Commons far more often to justify their actions – and this can only be good for democracy at a time of dwindling public faith in politics – however much discomfort it causes ministers.

His key reform was the resurrection of urgent questions, which allow MPs to apply for the summoning of a minister in response to matters of sudden importance. The previous Speaker granted two in his last year; on Thursday alone, three questions were scheduled on subjects as diverse as undercover policing and the inadequate Penrose Inquiry into the tainted blood scandal. He also allowed a third amendment to the Queen’s speech, which permits more viewpoints to be heard in the House and can be seen as paving the way for multiparty politics – a wise move reflecting the waning strength of mainstream parties.

Parliament remains in need of further reform to reflect and inspire the country. But one of the most welcome aspects of the past five years has been the increasing independence and vociferousness of backbenchers, whether through urgent questions, votes on foreign policy or select committees. The games played in parliament to oust Bercow reflect badly on those involved, not least since they were trounced so badly. Yet had they succeeded, it is unlikely his reforms would have been renounced by any successor. The only question would have been which party Bercow might join when he moves out of Speaker’s House; that now looks a little bit more likely to be Labour.

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