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A look back at John Bercow - a divisive figure who embodies the Brexit-era politician

From “Order! Order” to “Division! Clear the Lobby!” here’s a look back at the colourful House Speaker.

Image: Yui Mok

JOHN BERCOW IS bowing out.

After ten years of bellowing “Order!” (and, more rarely “Division!”) at his increasingly unruly parliament, he’s stepping down as House Speaker on what could be the last day the UK is a part of the EU.

Bercow is seen as an amusing quirky character within the House of Commons – and particularly for those of us outside the UK, serves as a kind of narrator who articulates our own horror at some MPs’ behaviour.

In what has become well-recognised Shakespearean-esque exclamations, Bercow has mildly insulted and chastised members of parliament in a never-ending attempt to get politicians to listen to what their rivals are saying before they retort. 

In a way, the revered House Speaker was saved and made by Brexit: previous scandals he was involved in include ludicrous chauffeur costs for a 16-minute walk, and multiple allegations that Bercow physically intimidated some of his staff. (Bercow was also on the House of Commons commission that agreed to change the rules so that these historic allegations can be investigated.)

His departure also comes at a particularly strategic time – just after the Tory party began discussing running another Tory candidate against him in his constituency of Buckingham. He’s also getting out before the UK leaves the EU (if there’s no extension). 

Allegations 

Bercow was first elected as an MP for May’s Conservative party – but once he was elevated to the role of speaker in 2009, he was moved above politics and supposed to be party neutral.

Oddly enough, he’s been accused of being biased, not in favour of his own party, but in favour of the opposition. He’s been accused of being sympathetic to Remainers and sabotaging Brexit attempts from his party’s government. 

In January this year, citing hundreds of years of precedent, Bercow told parliament that the government cannot resubmit the same Brexit deal agreed with the EU last year for another vote.

In response, the British tabloids had a field day. The Daily Mail’s front page was a picture of Bercow grinning, with the headline: “Smirk that says: Brexit be damned.”

Its parliamentary sketch writer described Bercow as “the twitchy windbag at his despotic worst”, while its editorial called him a “preening egoist” and his actions a “brazen act of sabotage… detonating this bombshell at the most inconvenient and sensitive moment”.

May would later put the Brexit deal to another two votes anyway, changing the deal slightly to get around this; one vote was without the Political Declaration on the future EU-UK relationship.

In the same month, Bercow defied precedent and the advice of his clerks and allowed MPs to amend a government motion on May’s Brexit deal – he said that it could be amended but not debated on, introducing a new interpretation of the 400-year-old rules.

This was again seen as a move that was seen as being against his own party and overstepping his role as an impartial peace-keeper and Commons rule-enforcer.

Although unusual when compared to the approach of his immediate predecessors, as is stated by this Guardian editor, this break from convention more clearly holds the government to account by those in opposition, a general sign of a healthy democracy. 

This also tallies with his own ambitions in taking up the role, where he stated the reasons he was motivated:

I wanted it because I felt that there was a task to be undertaken and that’s about strengthening backbench involvement and opportunity in parliament, and helping parliament get off its knees and recognise that it isn’t just there as a rubber-stamping operation for the government of the day, and as necessary and appropriate to contradict and expose the government of the day.

In Bercow’s own words

Dwe00suXgAAaB12 Bercow, surrounded by displeased advisors supposedly after going against their recommendations. Source: Twitter

Bercow has had his opportunities to hit back, of course: his retorts are probably what he’s best known for. 

During a House of Commons debate on his decision to allow an amendment that would reduce the amount of time Theresa May had to table an alternative to her Brexit deal from 21 days to just three, Bercow was asked:

We’ve all noticed in recent months a sticker on your car making derogatory comments about Brexit. This is a serious point about partiality. Have you driven that car with the sticker there?

The sticker the MP was referring to said ‘Bollocks to Brexit’. Bercow’s reply was:

“There was a factual error in [his] opening remarks, I’m sure it was an inadvertent error and I mean that most sincerely, but it was a factual error.

The honourable gentleman said that it had been noticed that there was a sticker in my car. That sticker on the subject of Brexit happens to be affixed to, or in the windscreen of… my wife’s car.
Yes, and I’m sure the honourable gentleman wouldn’t suggest for one moment that a wife is 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’s wife, who has made headlines herself before, is well-known to be a Remainer, which has drawn suspicion from Brexiteers that the Commons referee isn’t as impartial as he should be.

In other instances too numerous to count, Bercow gruffly appealed for MPs to be “calm”, “Zen”, and “Buddha-like”, in an attempt to dispel the friction and rage with some humour.

One of the more well-known examples of Bercow-appreciation was a mashup of the Speaker saying “Mr Peter Bone” to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Peter Bone himself, who has been a vocal critic of Bercow, said of his departure: “John Bercow was without doubt the best speaker in my time in Parliament.”

In February 2017, Bercow drew applause from his parliament when he said that he “would not like to issue an invitation to President Trump to speak in the Royal Gallery”. He continued:

As far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.

He’s also battled with Boris Johnson’s government from the start – accusing Johnson’s “blindingly obvious” decision to prorogue parliament to stifle MPs debating the subject. 

As parliament was being prorogued, Bercow said it was “an act of executive fiat”.

He verbally grappled with Commons Leader Jacob Rees Mogg when he tried to cite parliamentary procedure back at him, and famously this week, told the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove:

I say to the Chancellor of the Duchy, that when he turns up at our school as a parent, he’s a very well-behaved fellow.

“He wouldn’t dare behave like that in front of [the school] and neither would I.”

Don’t gesticulate! Don’t rant! Spare us the theatrics! Behave yourself. Be a good boy, young man. Be a good boy!

A YouGov survey of MPs conduced earlier this year found that Lindsay Hoyle, a Labour MP and current Deputy Speaker gathered the most support by far.

Whoever replaces Bercow will have some job ahead of them in drawing the same attention on the House of Commons, and whipping MPs into line that he did.

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