The Speaker is setting the scene for his retirement with a long goodbye
Like Marmite, MPs either love him or loathe him. Yesterday, the BBC broke the news that The Rt Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, had told friends he’s vacating the Chair next summer. His office has made no official statement and his spokeswoman has said any decision Bercow has taken will be announced to the House.
It is speculated that his departure will be in either June or July next year. Bercow could therefore comfortably sit out the conclusion of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union in March. Naturally, this will be by his design, given his privately known misgivings about Brexit. He wants to be the Speaker to preside over the Commons during this historic change. Despite some clamour for him to go now, retaining his position for that long is potentially bolstered by early support from Labour opposition heavyweights like Dame Margaret Beckett and Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Having swept into the Chair amidst the 2009 parliamentary expenses saga replacing Michael Martin (later Lord Martin of Springburn), Bercow is presiding over yet another Westminster scandal. This comes in the wake of Dame Laura Cox’s report this week on abusive behaviour in Westminster, including endemic bullying of staff, allegations of ‘sex pest MPs’ and a culture of indifference and cover-ups. It’s worth noting the Speaker himself has been accused of bullying former aides in Parliament. And this has fuelled calls for Bercow himself to resign, most notably from Tory former minister and Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee Maria Miller. It could be ironic if Bercow’s tenure as Speaker began with a parliamentary scandal and ended with one too.
Bercow, who is known to have a very scratchy relationship with elements of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, has enjoyed an unofficial supportive relationship with the Opposition. They value shoring up a Speaker who aggravates the Government. After all, he has always been keen to demonstrate his support for robustly holding the administration to the account, and some backbenchers (on all sides of the House) greatly appreciate his style in allowing them plenty of leeway in the Chamber.
But support from the Opposition for the Speaker is not universal. Labour stalwart Sir Kevin Barron, Chairman of the Commons’ Standards Committee, is reported by The Times to be disappointed that the Cox review on abusive behaviour is not being treated with “the seriousness that is deserves”. This could signal a rocky departure for Bercow, with the toxic mix of Brexit and the latest Westminster scandal. Importantly – some MPs see one issue as overshadowing the other. High drama will ensue and Bercow will be happy presiding over it.
It will be an interesting long goodbye for the Speaker because Bercow is a master of reinvention. You can see this from his career transition from precocious right-wing Monday Club activist in the 1980s, through to member of the Commons’ ‘awkward squad’ dedicated to parliamentary filibustering in the wake of Blair’s ’97 landslide, flirtation with joining the Labour Party, to becoming a champion of equal rights and an arch-reformist of the House of Commons.
He will leave a mark. Given the fact he loves the limelight, we’ll be hearing lots from him until summer 2019. Bercow’s long goodbye will not be a quiet one.
This begs the question, who will succeed him? Given tradition tends to rotate the Speakership between the two largest parties (but not always), keep an eye on the popular and friendly Labour MP Sir Lindsey Hoyle, who currently serves as Deputy Speaker.
But it’s early days yet…