Who is John Bercow, the Sudden Saviour of Sanity?
Despite her best efforts to run down the Brexit clock, on 12th March Theresa May was forced by the UK House of Commons to abandon her Brexit deal, told she could not leave without a deal under any circumstances and sent back to the EU to negotiate an extension to the deadline for implementing the UK’s Article 50 notice, the formal letter announcing it would be leaving the EU on March 29th.
Undeterred, she was intending the present her dead deal again, despite the fact it had been resoundingly defeated twice, hoping MPs could be bullied into accepting it due to the short time left to conclude some sort of deal. After all, they were the ones who had said there must be some deal before the UK leaves.
Unfortunately, a number of MPs were convinced by this argument, and there was a real chance that the deal would pass at the third attempt on the grounds that it was the only one Theresa was going to put on the table. There was a sense that it was time to bow to the inevitable, as they had made their protest for as long as they could.
What every commentator, and certainly every government minister, seems to have forgotten is that the House of Commons has a Speaker, whose job it is to make sure that every item of the House’s business is conducted according to its own rules. In a way, this is understandable. The importance of these rules, and accompanying conventions, is often obscured because the rules the public generally see are rather arcane ones.
For example, the Speaker can call the members by their names, but the members are obliged to refer to other members as the “honourable member” or “right honourable member” for the place which elected them. Similarly, MPs can never resign their seats, but also cannot hold an “Office of Profit Under the Crown” (i.e., one whose salary is paid directly by the monarch). A member wishing to vacate their seat therefore applies to become either “Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds” or “Steward of the Manor of Northstead”, is appointed, and then disqualified from sitting as an MP, at which point they also resign their new “Office of Profit.”
But the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, would be out of a job if he didn’t know all the strange byways of the thousand page book called “Erskine May”, in which all the Commons rules are recorded. On the 18th March, without consulting the government or anyone else, he announced that he wanted to read a statement to the House.
In this, he quoted the clause of Erskine May which states that the government cannot simply keep presenting the same motion in the same session of parliament when it has already been rejected. He argued that the first presentation of the deal was valid, and the second was allowable because the terms of it had changed enough to make it a separate motion.
But Mr. Speaker, as the House calls him, ruled that the deal cannot be presented for yet another vote in this session unless it is significantly altered. The House has voted on it already, so the House’s decision is binding. It cannot be presented again, without significant changes, in this session of parliament, particularly as it has already been rejected by 149 votes
Who is this man who has plunged the UK into a constitutional crisis, and probably changed the course of history, in a ten-minute statement? Why did no one see it coming? And can anyone overrule him, find a way around his statement, or claim it doesn’t matter?
Backed out of a corner and into the limelight
The Speaker of the House of Commons is a sitting MP who is nominated by one party or another and then elected by the members. According to another arcane tradition, they are supposed to put up a show of resistance before being led into the Speaker’s Chair for the first time
This is a throwback to the days when the House of Commons was a lot less powerful than the House of Lords, and even less powerful than the monarch – a Speaker conveying the views and decisions of the House to the king might not expect their head to remain on their shoulders for very long.
Bercow was elected to the Commons as a Conservative, for the safe seat of Buckingham. He was once seen as one of the more right-wing Conservatives, but moderated his views after he was elected. His new moderation saw him lose his jobs in the Shadow Cabinet during the long years of Labour rule, when Blairism had practically swallowed the centre ground, but make him a more acceptable figure to his opponents, and thus qualified him to be a potential non-partisan Speaker.
But the biggest factor in his career trajectory was his wife, Sally. She is a Labour Party member and activist, and also an attractive blonde with a history of unconventional behaviour, a sort of political Marianne Faithfull. Though she campaigned for her husband in Buckingham when he was elected in 1997, she campaigned for Labour everywhere else. She is not the wife a Conservative minister could have, but exactly the sort who would endear a Conservative to his opponents, in parliament and without.
All this made Bercow a fairly obvious choice for Speaker, and he was elected to the position in 2009 when the previous holder, former Labour MP Michael Martin, was forced to resign over the parliamentary expenses scandal.
Labour MPs, then still holding a substantial majority, wanted someone who would embarrass the Conservatives, and he duly defeated the Conservative nominee (Sir George Young, another renegade ex-minister) with Labour votes, despite being from the same party.
As is the custom, Bercow then resigned his party membership, and though continuing to be the MP for Buckingham stands as “The Speaker” at parliamentary elections, the main parties making no serious attempt to oppose him. He has since been re-elected as Speaker twice, the first time this has happened since World War Two.
Bercow’s tenure has certainly been colourful – he has been accused of allowing old records of the expenses scandal to be destroyed, of bullying his staff and of allowing a culture of bullying to develop within the House. He was also accused by UKIP of raising funds for his parliamentary election campaign from the Speaker’s Office in parliament, contrary to the rules, and although no action was taken UKIP still regards this as an “establishment stitch-up”.
Bercow also found himself in hot water by stating that he would strongly oppose Donald Trump addressing the Houses of Parliament during a planned state visit to the UK, due to the UK’s traditional opposition to some of Trump’s racist and sexist views and actions. He apologised to his counterpart in the House of Lords for not running this statement past him first, but not for its content, which satisfied honour on both sides without undermining his pronouncement, a very satisfactory outcome for a Speaker.
But no one thought that on the major issue of the day, whose tornado has consumed everything else in its path, Bercow would insist that the rules laid down by the Commons take precedence over any attempt by the government to force MPs into submission. People might argue over whether it is right to pursue Brexit, but when they do it in the competent place, parliament, they have to do it the right way or not at all – and thanks to the government, the “right way” is the one the opponents of Brexit have wanted to take all along.
Inverting the untruth
Doing things the right way should come naturally to Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter. This is, after all, the woman who was once asked by an interviewer what was the naughtiest thing she had ever done, and said that it was running through fields of wheat with her friends when she was a kid.
But Brexit hasn’t just emboldened Leavers outside parliament to wilfully flout the previous laws of civilized conduct because they won, and Remainers to revile them for it. It has opened up the same fissure in parliament between those who want to abide by the rules and those who will use any means possible to impose their preferred measures upon the public – and once again, the Leave and Remain supporters are on the same sides.
When the UK government began the Brexit legislative process by introducing the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill it included a disturbing number of “Henry VII clauses”, which enabled ministers to amend existing EU laws for transfer to UK law without consulting parliament. This was either a necessary practical measure or a bid to force laws through without debate or opposition, depending on your point of view
Since then, various arms of the Leave campaign have been fined by the courts for breaking campaign spending limits and not declaring donations. These fines could amount to over half a million pounds. This same Leave campaign also made a number of contradictory promises about Brexit which were impossible to keep at the same time, if at all; and in spite of the fact politicians have previously been fined for making false statements in election literature.
Yet the UK government has not declared the result of the referendum void, which is what would happen, by law, if the same offences were repeated in a parliamentary election. It has insisted that the result must be respected as “The Will of the People”. Any MP who opposes Brexit is openly called a “traitor to the country” or “undemocratic” by members and supporters of the government.
If the government can’t get its way by the method the rules of parliament says it should, it just ignores those rules. Theresa May’s government was the first in history to be found in Contempt of Parliament – as serious an offence as you can commit within parliament’s precincts.
This happened last year, when it refused to lay before the House the legal advice its own law officers had given it before it began the negotiations which led to the deal which the House of Commons has twice rejected. All those thousands of pieces of legislation in all those hundreds of years, and the only one over which a government was found in Contempt of Parliament was about Brexit.
John Bercow is being lambasted by a predictable gang of self-appointed “people’s champions” for saying “enough is enough”. But somebody had to, by definition, and the fact that no one imagined he ever would tells you all you need to know about the harm Brexit has done to political life in the UK, before it has even been implemented.
No rules, no future
Theresa has now asked the EU for an extension of the UK’s leaving date by three months, whilst launching an astonishing attack on parliament for not doing what she wanted it to do. The EU has responded in the same way it has for several months – that any extension must serve a clear purpose, which will be linked to passing the same withdrawal deal which the House of Commons has twice rejected by large majorities.
The Brexit referendum result cannot be “The Will of the People” because the people were told so many contradictory things about what they were voting for. You would be hard pressed to find a single Leave voter who voted for what the deal is proposing, and what has happened on the ground up till now.
The same conclusion can be drawn from other metrics. Almost 700,000 people marched through London in October to protest against Brexit, and demand a second referendum, while the Leave campaign is currently mounting a national “Leave Means Leave” march, which has so far attracted a maximum of 100 people per day. The organisers say only 100 can march at a time for “health and safety” reasons but these apparently did not apply to the anti-Brexit march, and were not mentioned when the Daily Express claimed that 100,000 would attend.
As for Theresa May, at this point she cannot win whichever way she goes, and neither can Brexit, as the public will not stand for the government defying parliamentary votes to force Brexit through. Her goose is cooked, and will be served to the population cold with the wheat she ran through as a child.
But it seems only one person understood that you can’t win the game if you don’t play by the rules. This should have been obvious to begin with. But it has taken the guardian of the rules of the House of Commons, Mr. Speaker Bercow, to show everyone that in a democratic society obeying the rules is not just an abstract ideal, but has a strong practical effect.
In any country, it is the institutions of state which should uphold the laws more than anyone else, including the courts. This is why we despair of “corrupt” Third World governments which do things we consider wrong, whilst lionising “freedom fighters,” those who may go to even more extreme lengths to win their arguments.
Bercow’s many detractors call him the “poison dwarf”, without realising that without his office they would not be at liberty to call Mr. Speaker names. At this critical moment in UK history he has insisted that no matter what Theresa’s government and the proponents of Brexit have got away with up till now, the rules are still triumphant. Few may have remembered that that is his job, but the world as a whole, including both Remainers and Leavers, should be very glad that he has done it.
All the while the tension is building, as one associate wrote me, Things are getting really nasty here in the UK. The so called Brexit is turning from a comedy to drama! ‘Heavy fog in the Channel: Continent cut off’ is the joke everyone’s using against the Brits these days. The economy is crumbling, and people are buying extra rice and cans of beans because in 12 days the frontiers might shut down.
Meantime, it’s great feast in Ireland. The Good Friday agreement says that in case the Brits start freaking out, the Northern Irish are legally entitled to ask for a referendum and, if successful, join the Republic. Is this the end of the UK?”
The soap opera goes on!
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.