Bercow needs to be eased out, one way or another
Goodwill is the oil which lubricates the British constitution. The rules of parliament have been inherited from a time when governing was a gentlemen’s business and was expected to be carried out by gentlemen acting as gentlemen. Self-restraint and the awareness of when it becomes inappropriate to keep pushing a case are an essential aspect to enabling the system to work. Parliament is frequently criticised for being overly adversarial – and so it is – but that conflict is also bounded by an unwritten (and unwriteable) code of conduct.
So what, you might ask. Well, that code of conduct is defined in large part by convention and precedent, meaning that they should only be interfered with either when there’s a consensus for change or when a political crisis becomes so intense that it becomes necessary to break the code.
Which brings us forthwith to John Bercow and his innovation this week in allowing MPs to table and vote on amendments to the government’s programme of business; something which sounds like (and is) a fairly dry and arcane subject but it’s an important one.
Let me set my own cards out here. Allowing MPs to determine the business in front of the House is a good thing. The government has too much power over the procedures of parliament, and the events in it, and there’s no rational reason why the House should not determine for itself what it discusses and votes on, though clearly someone has to take a lead in tabling a draft timetable and the government is best-placed to do that. However, the issue is not whether it would be beneficial to make that change but whether reform should come about by discussion among MPs and a vote on procedure, or whether it can be introduced unilaterally by the Speaker.
In amending the rules when and how he has, then Bercow gives the impression of changing procedure not in order to give MPs more control in general but in order to influence the outcome of a specific issue – an impression that may be accurate.
Also, the controversy over the Grieve amendment doesn’t stand in isolation; it’s just the latest in a series of spats where his impartiality has been in doubt, not just between the Commons and the government – where you can make an argument that the Speaker shouldn’t be impartial – but between the two sides of the House, where it most certainly should.
The perception of a Speaker who is willing to use his powers in order to tilt the playing field in favour of an outcome he privately champions (even if his means of so doing in this case is to introduce a change which is, in general, beneficial), is one that undermines his authority to such an extent as to make his Speakership unviable. As such, he needs to go.
There are, in any case, at least two other reasons why Bercow’s time should already have passed. The first is that when he took on the job, he promised to serve no more than nine years. That was nine years and seven months ago (which incidentally makes him the longest-serving Speaker since the 1940s: it’s not as if nine years is an unusually or unreasonably short tenure). The other is in his inadequate response to claims of bullying and harassment within the House, which again should, of itself, have been enough to prompt his departure.
That brings us back to the question of convention, and the principle that one good flout deserves another. Until recently, a Speaker served until they died or decided to retire, unchallenged in the House and rarely challenged in general elections (though not contesting the Speaker’s constituency has been only patchily observed even among major parties – the SNP and UKIP have never abided by it and as recently as 1987, both Labour and the SDP stood against Speaker Weatherill in Croydon NE).
Those conventions are clearly breaking down, with increasing talk of Bercow being challenged within the House, potentially under a Vote of Confidence. For two successive Speakers to be forced out would be unfortunate in one sense, but perhaps still the right outcome given that both men are or were sub-standard in the role.
Alternatively, a longer-term action – but one carrying clear intent – would be for the Conservative Party to select a candidate for Buckingham and begin campaign preparations. Niceties can be observed by merely claiming that doing so is consistent with Bercow’s ‘nine year’ pledge and his later revision that he now intends to serve out this parliament. It would, however, send an unmistakeable signal to him that he would not get another clear run should he revise his retirement plans again and seek to serve on. Given Bercow’s willingness to retain the Speakership through to 2022, the possibility of a general election before then, and his own sense of self, such a revision is entirely plausible.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Tory would win against Bercow in Buckingham but nor is there any guarantee that the Speaker would either, even if he had the tacit endorsement of Labour and the Lib Dems. For reference, the last time that Bercow stood as a Conservative (in 2005), he won 57% of the vote and had a majority of over 18,000.
Brexit is in many ways a rule-breaker. Passions are high and with those passions go a disregard for the conventions of behaviour and self-restraint. That’s a shame, because those conventions play a valuable role in keeping a system running smoothly which has generally worked well over the centuries. Breaking them should not go without consequences.