At 3.37pm on 9th September 2019, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons gave a statement to the House announcing his intention to stand down by the next general election.
In a carefully-worded statement, Bercow stated that “If the House tonight votes for an early general election, my tenure as speaker and MP will end when this parliament ends”.
To some mirth from the chamber, and in recognition of how nicely he was priming the remain-supporting House to elect another Speaker sympathetic to remain, he continued,
If the House does not so vote, I have concluded that the least disruptive and most democratic course of action would be for me to stand down at the close of business on Thursday, October the 31st. Least disruptive because that date will fall shortly after the votes on the Queen’s Speech expected on 21st and 22nd October. The week or so after that may be quite lively, and it would be best to have a experienced figure in the chair for that short period. Most democratic because it will be mean that a ballot is held where most members will have some knowledge of the candidates. This is far preferable to a contest at the beginning of a parliament when new MPs will not be similarly informed and may find themselves vulnerable to undue institutional influence. We would anyone to be whipped senseless, would we?
Getting increasingly emotional, he then went on:
Throughout my time as Speaker I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone, anywhere, at any time. To deploy a perhaps dangerous phrase, I have also sought to be the Backbenchers’ backstop. I could not do so without the support of a small but superb team in Speaker’s House; the wider House staff; my Buckingham constituents; and, above all, my wife Sally and our three children, Oliver, Freddie and Jemima. From the bottom of my heart, I thank them all profusely.
Before, in an odd and increasingly political turn, he appeared to suggest that a minority a members were in parliament for personal gain, and that Parliament rather than the Government was in danger of being overridden.
I could also not have served without the repeated support of this House and its Members, past and present. This is a wonderful place, filled overwhelmingly by people who are motivated by their notion of the national interest, by their perception of the public good and by their duty—not as delegates, but as representatives—to do what they believe is right for our country. We degrade this Parliament at our peril.
The Speaker’s role, long admired for its impartiality, has under Speaker Bercow come to be viewed as increasingly partisan. The attitude of the chair towards his colleagues appeared to lack the affection of former Speaker Betty Boothroyd, who was famous for being able to bring discipline to the chamber without demeaning those she was addressing.
Ross Clark writing for the Spectator, opined that it was the Speaker’s inconsistent interventions on behalf of Remain motions that would be the sourest part of his legacy.
The Speaker’s impartiality has gone out of the window as Bercow has given rebels an advantage, sometimes quoting precedent and sometimes discarding it.
In the same magazine, Toby Young summed up the Speaker’s resignation thus:
Here was the political class in Westminster at its worst – lavishing praise on the Speaker because they’re so appreciative of his efforts to obstruct the will of the British people.
Come to think of it, maybe just showing this clip would be sufficient. Here he is in all his pomp, with oleaginous self-importance oozing from every pore
Once again, he has demonstrated just how unfit he is for the office he holds – rather than uphold his constitutional obligation to be impartial, he is partisan to the last. No wonder he got a standing ovation from the Opposition benches, but not the Government benches.
Guido Fawkes was no more complimentary:
In perhaps the best news for Brexiteers since Boris became PM, the constitution-wrecker-in-chief, John Bercow has announced he will be standing down as speaker and an MP at the next election, following news the Tories were planning on fielding a candidate against him… […]
The man who’s done more than anyone to up-end Britain’s political institutions to suit his own aims announced his intention in the Commons just now via a personal statement, watched on by his wife Sally from the Gallery. Good riddance.
The implications for Brexit of Bercow’s timing were picked up by Tom Peck, writing for the Independent, ‘John Bercow is standing down, but only after an hour and a half of welling up at tributes to himself’:
This last-minute bit of chicanery served one purpose, which he then made clear. That there is almost certainly going to be a general election in November or December, and so it would be this parliament, not the next one that would elect a new speaker. Good luck getting a Brexiteer in this chair, in other words.
The Speaker’s willingness to allow so many tributes to himself on the last day of Parliament before the recess was also not overlooked:
It was at this point, at this rarefied day at this rarefied hour in the life of the nation that Bercow found time, in a parliamentary schedule that was already full to beyond bursting point, for 90 minutes worth of tributes to himself.
It is also salient to note that the role of Speaker has historically alternated between a Conservative and Labour MP. The election of Michael Martin in 2000 represented a historic break with this tradition, becoming the second Labour MP in a row to hold the post. Although, Bercow resigned the Conservative whip, his loyalties were always viewed as closer to those of the Labour benches, and it was telling the strongest applause and plaudits came from that side during the resignation speech. Should a Labour MP fill the role, the absence of conservatives from the chair of the mother of parliaments will stretch back to the end of Bernard Weatherill’s tenure in 1992.
It is among the many precedents consigned to the waste paper basket of parliamentary tradition under Blair and Bercow.
Image by Institute for Government – Flickr: John Bercow MP speaks at the Institute for Government, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30206435