Image Credit: UK Parliament
Of all the Parliamentary uncertainty that has occurred over the past few months, it is perhaps a little ironic that the exit of John Bercow, the House Speaker, that will be remembered as the one deadline that could be met. The exit of the controversial Parliamentarian has been rumoured for some time, and although the drama surrounding Brexit enabled him to justify staying on, it seems that his time is now up for one of Parliament’s most divisive Speakers ever. John Bercow will leave the House on the day of the current Brexit deadline: 31 October.
Bercow’s Parliamentary career began when he was first elected in 1997, eventually becoming Chief Secretary of Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith’s cabinet in 2001. He would then leave the cabinet in 2002, reportedly giving the reason that he did not believe he was “ruthless enough” for politics.
Later in the same year, when the Conservative leadership imposed a three-line whip to force their MPs to vote against a Labour bill introducing adoption for same-sex couples, Bercow defied his bosses and voted with the Labour party. He won the Hansard Society’s 2005 award for Opposition MP of the year after his enthusiastic support of global human rights causes. This behaviour began his reputation as a champion of backbenchers, and Parliamentary sovereignty.
Bercow’s career as speaker would begin in 2009 with a simple directive to Commons clerks. This message being to find ways to maximise the power of the House at the expense of the executive. Many MPs would initially view him with distrust, due to his past record of inconsistency on political issues. That said, he would eventually win their trust, introducing reforms to strengthen Parliament. He also became a fierce critic of processes that penalised backbenchers, like Private Member’s Bills that were only debated on Fridays, when MPs are typically back in their constituencies.
Even the manner of his exit has been carefully planned to strengthen the Commons. His successor will be chosen by the 2017 Parliament, not the one that follows the next election. In theory, this means that government whips will be less capable of directing votes towards favourable candidates. This could mean that candidates more critical of the government line may do better.
Bercow himself would draw criticism for his repeated breaks with Parliamentary convention. A speaker in the 21st Century, he argued, would wear a suit and tie in “spirit of the times,’’ rather than the “fussy gown” worn by his predecessor, Michael Martin. He would also be the first Jewish speaker ever. This was a rather significant first in a time of anti-semitic tendencies in British politics. His office would even break with legal convention when Bercow believed it was necessary to defend Parliament. In March this year, he rejected the introduction of a third vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, citing a part of the constitution that dated back to 1604. He famously called the current Prime Minister a “bank robber”, following his attempts to subvert Parliament.
His gregarious chairmanship during Brexit would not go unnoticed by the public. Numerous clips of famous rants at MPs, including multiple directives that Parliamentarians “take up yoga” have gone viral on YouTube and other forms of social media. At the end of his tenure, Bercow is vastly popular among millenials, for whom he is the second most admired political figure in the UK according to YouGov.
The race must now begin to replace Bercow. It will be decided through an election that will be conducted in a secret ballot of MPs on 4 November. Currently, it is rumoured that it will feature Bercow’s Deputy Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, Labour’s Chris Bryant, and Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh. It remains to be seen whether the next Speaker is able to match Bercow’s enigmatic style, or his continued frustration of the government.