ANDREW ADONIS praises speaker John Bercow for asserting parliamentary supremacy at a moment of great peril for the institution and the nation.
The outpouring of tributes to John Bercow from almost everyone who isn’t a right-wing extremist is about more than his exemplary service to the House of Commons. He has become a hero of the restoration of parliamentary democracy in Britain after our near death experience with Faragist populism and extremism.
With each lurch to deceit, manipulation and abuse of power by the Brexit gang in charge of the government, the battle of our time has become not just between Leave and Remain but between democracy and authoritarianism. It is not yet over but we are winning, thanks in no small part to Bercow.
Brexit was caused, and has been perpetuated, by catastrophic failures of national leadership. Since Tony Blair, each prime minister has been worse than the last. Each, in particular, has been weaker in standing up to Nigel Farage and extra-parliamentary populism.
For years after becoming Tory leader in 2005, David Cameron appeased Farage and his own Faragists on the Tory benches. When his off-hand referendum pledge caught up with him after his unexpected majority in the 2015 election – thanks to a weak Labour Party under Ed Miliband – Cameron rushed into an ill-prepared referendum and then resigned the day after defeat, leaving the country literally leaderless.
Theresa May, unprepared and ill equipped for the job foisted on her, had no credible plan or vision and managed the remarkable feat of bitterly alienating pro- and anti-Europeans in equal measure. Her contradictory policy for a very hard Brexit, but only after a long no-change transition and with a Northern Ireland exclusion from this hard Brexit to avoid a hard border in Ireland, convinced no-one.
The most taciturn and uncommunicative prime minister in history, May leached support and authority. She survived by two years the disastrous 2017 election, in which she lost her majority, only because a third election in three years was too much, the Labour leadership was too weak and her only viable replacement as Tory leader – the louche and ludicrous Boris Johnson – was thought too big a risk even among most of his own supporters, until May utterly disintegrated after the third rejection of her Brexit deal.
So we ended up with Johnson, prime minister for seven weeks but yet to win a single vote in parliament. From a brazenly dishonest start, claiming that the chances of no-deal were a “million to one” then making it the public aim of his government, each week has been worse than the last as he and his out-of-control adviser Dominic Cummings desperately flounder in search of a Faragist Brexit policy which is remotely viable and deliverable.
Johnson’s latest ploy, to suspend parliament for five weeks in the run-up to the next cliff edge exit date from the EU at the end of October, is the most dangerously populist act of the entire Brexit saga. It is an unconstitutional, existential challenge to parliament and parliamentarians which, thanks to Bercow allowing the necessary legislative opportunities, they met with fierce and apparently successful resistance in the brief four-day sitting, which ended with Johnson’s enforced prorogation at 1am on Tuesday morning, after marathon sittings.
In the face of this alternating vacuum and viciousness in 10 Downing Street, Bercow has offered formidable and principled leadership in parliament. In the past two years he has been effectively Leader of the House of Commons – speaker in the true sense of ‘speaking’ for the majority of the House across party on the greatest issue of the day.
Bercow’s finest hour was his statement, issued while he was on holiday abroad, minutes after Johnson’s announcement of the five-week prorogation in late August. “I have had no contact from the government,” he declared. “But if the reports that it is seeking to prorogue parliament are confirmed, this move represents a constitutional outrage. However it is dressed up it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty.”
It has echoes of Yeltsin standing on the tank in defiance of the coup against Gorbachev, and Bercow’s greatest predecessor as speaker, William Lenthall, standing up to Charles I when he attempted to arrest the five members in 1642. “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here,” Lenthall told Charles. Bercow’s statement is its modern equivalent.
That Bercow should have been in this place at this time was in some ways fortuitous. He came to the speakership unexpectedly a decade ago, after the implosion of his disastrous and barely articulate predecessor Michael Martin.
Martin’s appointment had been an act of over-reach by Tony Blair at the head of his landslide Labour majority. When Betty Boothroyd retired in 2000, the post should have gone to a Tory. Instead Martin was inserted to be weak and pliant – so weak and pliant that he collapsed amid the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009.
There then had to be a Tory. Gordon Brown latched on to Bercow as a highly disaffected, articulate backbencher who appeared to be on the verge of crossing the floor, so unhappy was he with Cameron’s Tories. I knew him at the time, and was impressed, because of his concern about special needs education. But many were cynical both about his journey leftwards from his Monday Club student youth, and still more about Brown’s motivation in providing the votes to make him speaker.
But Bercow was no-one’s stooge. The fact that he had previously been neither a minister nor in the hierarchy of the Commons administration as a grey deputy speaker proved invaluable as he took on both the government and the clerks of the Commons to rewrite procedure in favour of backbenchers holding the government to account.
Within a year of his election Brown had gone and a hung parliament elected, giving Bercow the ideal context in which to assert the legislature against the executive. For all but three years of his speakership there has been no majority for any party in the Commons, which he has exploited skilfully to boost the House at large.
From the outset, to government alarm, Bercow granted regular ‘urgent questions’ requiring ministers to appear before the Commons immediately on issues of topical controversy. In the year before he became speaker only two UQs were granted. Last year it was 152. His heckling of ministers dodging questions is legendary. Without anyone quite noticing when it happened, Prime Minister’s Questions was extended from 30 to 45 minutes by the device of Bercow simply allowing it to run on beyond 12.30pm each Wednesday. He has done the same with prime ministerial statements, where questions now frequently go on for two or three hours.
One of Bercow’s great qualities is that he is present. Present not just in the sense of being highly vocal, but also physically present in the chair for most of Commons business, a radical departure from his predecessors who were largely absent after the first hour or so of each sitting, handing the chair to deputies. For all the big Brexit debates over the last three years he has not once left the chamber. As an exercise in bladder control it is remarkable. As an exercise in power, it has been indispensable.
Most important of all, however, is the rewriting of Commons rules that Bercow masterminded to make it possible for Dominic Grieve and others to bring in emergency legislation – up to and including last week – to take charge of Brexit policy in the name of a parliamentary majority. Only because of this was it possible for parliament to take back control in the highly reactive and quick-witted way necessary to circumvent the full armoury of what Lord Hailsham, a Tory lord chancellor, called Britain’s “elective dictatorship”.
The Bercow speakership has probably stopped Brexit, asserting parliamentary supremacy at a moment of great peril for the institution and the nation.
Should he have stayed longer? Four prime ministers, four parliaments and three elections as speaker in Buckingham – one fought against Farage personally – are about as long as viable. Better that he leaves of his own accord, and is replaced by a radical Labour MP like Harriet Harman – it is now, fortuitously, Labour’s turn – than that he endures a guerrilla war with Johnson and possibly yet another Tory prime minister, including a bruising election in Buckingham where the Tories signalled they would contest him. Whoever his successor, they will work to his precedents and his expectations. The chances of a strong successor are greatly enhanced by another radical Bercow reform about to come into its own. The speaker is now elected by MPs in a secret ballot, so the government can’t exert control.
Some of us think this excellent practice should be extended to the election of another key constitutional officer of the House of Commons – the prime minister. Bercow’s legacy may not be done yet.