Bercow’s contrarian crusade

John Bercow, current speaker of the House of Commons, has always sold himself as a man of staunch convictions. As a student he was fiercely outspoken, once calling for the assisted repatriation of immigrants while leader of a Young Tories club – a statement that he now distances himself from and claims to regret deeply. His rise through parliament has seen him move from the hard-right of the Conservative Party to the Tory MP most likely to defect to Labour. His boldest moment of dissent came in 2002, when he wilfully sacrificed his front-bench position by voting with his conscience in favour of gay adoption, rather than following the three-line whip sanctioned by then-chief whip Iain Duncan Smith.

Yet the protean nature of his political beliefs – the transition from Empire-loving student to civil-liberties warrior – calls the sincerity of these sentiments into question.  He claims to stand by his views with passionate intensity, but the pattern that emerges is of an itinerant contrarian. His lurch to the left is often denounced as an attempt to gain the Labour votes he needed to be elected speaker. He also has a reputation as something of an egotist, and has received a great deal of press attention for the way he revels in the inherent theatre of the speaker’s role

As speaker, Bercow has marched under a banner of reform; he originally set out with the principled aim of doing away with the more arcane parliamentary practices that discourage ordinary people from connecting with politics, but his latest stance is looking increasingly like reform for reform’s sake and an occasion for Bercow to emphasise and bolster his personal brand at the cost of the House.

Bercow has turned the appointment of a non-political civil servant into a media storm. Instead of following centuries of tradition and giving the role of clerk of the House to the assistant clerk, he decided to open the role to outside applications – ‘reform’ was the watchword, again. A committee picked and chaired by Bercow unsurprisingly recommended a figure in line with his project; and consequently the Australian civil servant Carol Mills looks set to take the job. This is in spite of the fact that Mills’ former employer wrote a public letter stating that she was not qualified. Also, in spite of the fact that, outside of this committee, David Natzler, current assistant clerk, is universally considered to be a better choice. What’s more, Mills is currently under review at her former job for spying on an opposition minister.

Bercow’s decision flies in the face of reason, and rumour has it that Natzler will file a lawsuit against Bercow’s decision on the grounds of gender discrimination – he believes Bercow wants arbitrarily to install a woman to the office in order to dispel the Commons’ boys’ club atmosphere. Other than thwarting the career of a diligent public servant, Bercow’s decision presents a huge problem for parliamentary democracy. By installing the inexperienced Carol Mills as clerk he will have a wider remit to control the House as he sees fit. His more unorthodox conduct was frequently reined in by former clerk Robert Rogers, and if a clerk unfamiliar with the House’s rules is brought in, further breaches will be able to carry on unchecked. This is of particular importance when the appointment comes from a speaker who receives frequent accusations of partiality and has a publicly hostile relationship with prime minister David Cameron.

Bercow is putting his personal image as an iconoclast ahead of a pragmatic appointment. As leader of the House, William Hague is in a position to intervene, but has declined to do so as such behaviour would be ‘pretty extraordinary’. MPs have called for an inquiry and a former speaker has condemned the appointment, but it looks like the sanctity of the parliamentary process will fall victim to Bercow’s contrarian crusade.

Jack Prescott is a spiked intern.

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