British politics

Speaker of the UK House of Commons John Bercow.

17-09-2019REUTERS

I thought I might by-pass the gory details of Brexit for just a week and concentrate on the outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP - and the way that he divides opinion in the House at a number of different levels. For instance, a little research reveals that when Mr Bercow first sat as an ordinary member for his Buckinghamshire constituency, he was regarded as somewhat of a right-winger on the Conservative benches - “Who always looked as if he ought to have a Rottweiler on a piece of rope with him…”

However, over the past twenty years or so, he first gained and then polished a reputation as a left-leaning liberal member around about the time he met and then married his wife Sally, who would tell anyone who would listen, that she was a Labour supporting Blairite. Indeed Mr Bercow’s elevation to Speaker in June 2009, was somewhat of a surprise, given the fact that although it was a Conservative MPs turn to become Speaker - it was well known that Bercow was not popular within the parliamentary ranks of his own party and the theory still persists that Labour MPs voted on bloc to put him in the Speakers chair knowing that would it would annoy many Tory members. Yes, it appears that silly games are not confined to the schoolyard.

HAS NEUTRALITY BEEN COMPROMISED?
You will not need me to tell you that Mr Bercow has become a central part of the present Brexit debate in parliament - his critics adjudge him to be completely biased in favour of those members wishing to remain in the EU - and it didn’t help his cause, or indeed the perception of Brexiters as to his neutrality on this thorny subject - when a car he was driving sported the legend “B******* to Brexit” - even though he claimed it was his wife’s car. To be fair to Mr Bercow, he has championed some long awaited changes to parliamentary procedure, with particular regard to female members in particular.

Nevertheless, he has been accused of workplace bullying, which is still under review, and is known for his explosive temper, when hearing from his parliamentary officials things he does not want to hear. However, this can all be put to one side - as what he is now accused of by a large section of his own party is of consistent bias - particularly by those who want to see the United Kingdom leave the European Union. For those, like me, who are not experts in the field of parliamentary process, it maybe that he is merely following precedent and protecting the rights of MPs against the might of the executive i.e. the government of the day.

STANDING DOWN!
Whatever is the case, it just seems to me that Mr Bercow rather likes the limelight in the chamber and the celebrity status it affords him - and quite frankly, certain debates resemble ‘The John Bercow Show’ - because, it has to be said that Mr B does not suffer from crippling shyness, now does he? Alternatively, many observers see him as a sort of heroic figure standing up for the rights of humble parliamentarians. I suspect myself that Speaker Bercow rather likes to merge both these elements together to project his own vanity. Interestingly, after remaining in his chair for more than a year after he pledged to stand down - he has recently announced that he will stand down as Speaker at the end of October. Surely only a cynic could suggest that his standing down from office had anything at all to do with the fact that the present Conservative Party management have told him that they will put up a candidate against him at any forthcoming general election - thus, breaking the tradition that the sitting Speaker of the House is not challenged by the main parties in an election?

DIFFERENT SPEAKERS - DIFFERENT STYLES
All this controversy about Speaker Bercow and his passion, or otherwise, for proper parliamentary procedure, has provoked political commentators to look at other modern day Speakers and the legacy that they left our democracy. The first identifiable Speaker of Parliament - was an aristocrat named Sir Thomas de Hungerford in the early 14th century. However, it is often said that the first House of Commons Speaker to be recognised by ordinary non political folk - was George Thomas MP. His tenure was from 1976 to 1983, but crucially this period coincided with the broadcasting of parliament and soon George Thomas’ s rich and mellifluous Welsh accent was everywhere - with his Rhondda Valley enhanced “Orrdeeer - Orrdeeer” heard via the radio every single day. Next up was the rather self-effacing, but efficient, Conservative backbencher Bernard Wetherill. The low key, Speaker Wetherill, was from a family of humble, London City tailors - and it is said that he kept a thimble in his waistcoat pocket to remind of who he was and where he came from. As the 1980’s morphed into the 1990’s Betty Boothroyd MP became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992. A former Tiller Girl (A high kicking chorus line dancer!) Betty was both brilliant and on occasions brutal. A Yorkshire lass, representing a West Bromwich constituency - Betty Boothroyd took no prisoners. A lobby correspondent at that time wrote the following about her - “What I’ve always liked is the way that when she is genuinely angry, the genteel voice fades, and her Yorkshire accent returns, like a barmaid saying she will “put towel back on taps and chuck all you buggers out if she doesn’t get a bit of hush.” Ms Boothroyd retired to The House of Lords in 2000 and was replaced by Michael Martin MP - a hard-bitten Scottish Labour MP, a survivor of many a vicious political skirmish north of the border.

Strangely enough, Mr Martin will be best remembered by his almost suicidal defence of MPs when The Daily Telegraph broke the story that hundreds of MPs were fiddling their expenses. Mr Martin’s days were numbered, when instead of seeking out the truth of this huge scandal - he chose instead, to cover up and seek to discover who had leaked the details and the vast scale of these frauds to the media. Mr Martin resigned in 2009 - some say a broken man.

WHO’LL BE NEXT?
So what will become of the present Speaker, John Bercow MP? Expect to see at some time a “no-holds-barred autobiography”; perhaps, who knows - maybe a political chat show! I really don’t know - but, all I do know is that for some he is a hero and a defender of our democracy. For others, a pipsqueak, full of self importance and pomposity - who pushed his luck too far in the end.

Personally, I think that he has always revelled in the thought of carving out his own place in British, party political history, and perhaps he has - because the position of Speaker of the House of Commons will never be underrated by anybody again. I’ll take a small bet that those seeking to replace him are subtly and not so subtly going about the business of succeeding him even now.

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