Opinion

Bercow gone but not soon to be forgotten

  • Controversial figure: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow was accused of being impartial by Brexiters (Photograph by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor via AP)
  • Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion

Britain’s House of Commons elected a new Speaker on Monday. That this is even news outside a small Westminster bubble reflects the enormous attention courted by the previous holder of the post, John Bercow. He was undoubtedly an historic figure, and a controversial one.

The attention on Speaker-elect Lindsay Hoyle, however, also reflects the importance of the position as the Brexit drama continues to unfold. Two of the past three British parliaments have not had a single party in control.

There will be more decisive Brexit votes after the General Election next month.

The Speaker, who is meant to remain impartial, not only controls debate and decides who can speak; he will play the crucial role of deciding which amendments to Bills or motions can be debated and voted on.

Bercow was no typical Speaker.

There were verbal flourishes, put-downs of disorderly lawmakers and, of course, the way he barked “Or-derr!” at Members of Parliament.

Such is his international celebrity that his speaking diary will probably fill up years in advance.

He was entertaining and certainly maintained that precious order. But almost all of the seven MPs who ran to replace him offered thinly veiled attacks on his methods and manner.

One candidate, Conservative lawmaker Edward Leigh, said the Speaker should be “a quiet voice” and “submerge their character in the job”.

Eleanor Laing, another Tory, spoke about combating bullying — a reference to allegations of mistreatment in the Commons, including against Bercow.

The Labour MP Chris Bryant, a finalist, said he would be a “Speaker who stands by the rules, who is completely impartial and who knows Erskine May [the parliamentary rulebook] back to front.”

Hoyle, a Labour MP from Lancashire, was a well-regarded Deputy Speaker and was in the Speaker’s chair during the 2017 terrorist attack in Westminster.

Unlike the remainer Bercow, he has not said how he voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum, which is probably a good thing. His job will be to unpick his predecessor’s legacy, continuing his positive innovations while doing a fair amount of damage limitation.

The charges levied against Bercow were far more serious than simply liking the sound of his own voice too much. There were those persistent allegations of bullying, which Bercow denied.

They might have cost him his job, but the Brexit debate was paramount, and most MPs were unwilling to take their chances on a new Speaker.

The biggest criticism of Bercow was that he wasn’t impartial, as the rules require; that he was a Remain voter who tilted the field for his preferred side.

Bercow always rejected that charge and defended his decisions as being pro-Parliament, not anti-Brexit.

When a Conservative MP noted that Bercow’s car displayed an anti-Brexit sticker on it, he shot back in typically robust fashion that the sticker and car belonged to his wife.

“I’m sure the honourable gentleman wouldn’t suggest for one moment that a wife be somehow the property or chattel of her husband. She is entitled to her views. That sticker is not mine and that’s the end of it.”

Bercow unabashedly owned up to allowing “procedural creativity” in his Brexit decisions, but insisted this was to prevent a runaway executive without a majority from undermining Parliament.

It was the Conservative Party’s lack of a majority after the 2017 General Election that elevated the Speaker’s role to a far more consequential one and Bercow wasn’t one to shrink from that.

He broke with Commons convention several times in a way that frustrated the Government and changed the course of Brexit.

Most recently, he allowed lawmakers to seize control of the parliamentary agenda, which led to the Benn Act forcing the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask the European Union for the three-month extension to the October 31 Brexit deadline.

There are aspects of Bercow’s legacy that Hoyle will want to build on.

He was a strong ambassador for the Commons, explaining the rules, and making its arcane proceedings more accessible.

He also made the place more efficient and introduced some modernisations such as replacing a shooting gallery with a crčche.

He ensured that far more policy matters were debated on the floor, that ministers answered more questions and that backbench MPs — those not in government or shadow government — got their say.

Michael Martin, Bercow’s predecessor, allowed only two “urgent questions” in his last parliamentary term; Bercow granted 177 in his first five years in the role, according to the Institute for Government.

Hoyle cuts a very different figure to Bercow, certainly a humbler one.

He will probably hew closer to pre-Bercow convention in his interpretation of the rules. But given the important votes on Brexit to come, whether over Johnson’s deal or future trade talks, his role will be no less important.

Still, the Bercow era is over. The Speaker is not meant to grab your attention, let alone monopolise it. If you don’t hear much about Lindsay Hoyle, he’s probably doing his job well.

Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion