John Bercow: defending parliament against the people

The departing speaker was no warrior for democracy.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Deputy Editor

Topics Brexit Politics UK

So it’s goodbye to John Bercow. The longest-serving speaker of the House of Commons since the war, the small man with the big thesaurus, has finally stepped down.

His last Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) yesterday proved a fitting send-off. This weekly session, intended to be just 30 minutes, has during Bercow’s tenure become ever-longer – in part, at least, due to his own verbosity; his habit, as the author Ben Schott has put it, ‘of using 10 words when two would suffice’.

The session stretched to well over an hour yesterday, groaning under the weight of both sincere and tongue-in-cheek well-wishes from Commons leaders. Prime minister Boris Johnson, unsurprisingly, opted for the latter.

Though Bercow began life as a Conservative – and a pretty hard-right one at that – he has long been considered by Tories as a turncoat, increasingly in line with Labour. But more importantly, in the Brexit saga his decisions have at key points allowed this Remainer Parliament to land blows against the Leave majority.

Johnson yesterday praised Bercow’s ‘10 tumultuous years in your high chair’, before taking some sly swipes at his activism, which in many MPs’ eyes has destroyed the impartiality of his office. ‘You have been a player in your own right, peppering every part of the chamber with your thoughts and opinions’, Johnson said, pointing to Bercow’s various ‘legislative innovations’.

Perhaps Bercow’s most controversial innovation was in January, when he ignored his clerks’ advice and allowed an amendment to a government motion to be laid by Remoaner MP Dominic Grieve ultimately aimed at stymying a No Deal exit. In the words of the BBC’s parliamentary anorak Mark D’Arcy, it ‘drove a coach and horses through accepted normal practice’.

‘If such a precedent can be made to stick, it would be a huge blow against any government’s accustomed control over the business of the Commons’, D’Arcy added. And so it was to be. Bercow would later allow backbench MPs to take control of the order paper in order, among other things, to pass the Surrender Act to legislate against No Deal – closing off the path to a clean-break Brexit.

Amid the uproar in the Commons that followed the passing of the Grieve amendment, Bercow told the house, ‘I am not in the business of invoking precedent, nor am I under any obligation to do so… If we were guided only by precedent, nothing would ever change.’ Then, two months later, he had suddenly became a traditionalist, invoking a 1604 convention to stop Theresa May holding another vote on her Brexit deal.

Bercow has styled himself as a defender of the backbenches against the overreach of the executive. He expanded urgent questions and emergency debates to keep government and ministers more on their toes. All good things in themselves. All true democrats should want a parliament that keeps the executive in check.

But during the Brexit process, Bercow’s role has also been to empower parliament at the expense of the electorate, giving them all manner of unusual, unprecedented means to overturn the vote for Brexit.

He has been quite open about his pro-Remain views, and the fact that he thinks it is the right of MPs to defy the wishes of their own constituents. In 2017, after a press and public backlash against 12 anti-Brexit Tories, he effectively stood up for MPs’ right to thwart Brexit. ‘In voting as you think fit’, he reassured MPs, ‘you are never enemies of the people. You are dedicated, hard-working, committed public servants, doing what you believe to be right for this country.’

Yesterday Jeremy Corbyn lauded Bercow as a democratic champion ‘in the tradition of the great Speaker Lenthall’ – the man who stood up to King Charles I in 1642 when the king turned up in parliament, flanked by hundreds of soldiers, demanding to know the whereabouts of five MPs he accused of treason.

But where Lenthall’s stand against autocratic government sparked the Civil War and the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy, Bercow’s multisyllabic interventions have only worked to enable the counter-revolutionary overthrow of the popular vote for Brexit.

Bercow hasn’t so much stood up for parliament’s traditions as he has bent and broke them as he sees fit to the end of crushing the biggest public mandate in our history. Whatever you want to call that, it isn’t democratic.

When parliament voted this week on a one-line bill to hold a General Election, opposition parties put down amendments seeking to fiddle the franchise to include 16- and 17-year-olds and EU citizens. (Two groups who are generally pro-Remain and anti-Tory.)

The government breathed a sigh of relief when deputy speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, filling in for Bercow that day, refused to select the amendments.

Hoyle was right to do it, of course. Such a profound change in how we do politics, and in what citizenship means in this country, should not be done so hastily by a bunch of MPs trying to rig an upcoming election in their favour.

But though it is perhaps unfair to suggest that Bercow might have done otherwise, that observers even thought such a change might have been possible tells us something about the Bercow era. He has, if nothing else, wrecked the presumption that the speaker is an honest broker, following the rules impartially.

Whether or not Bercow’s exploits in recent years were the product of his belief in parliamentary scrutiny, his loathing of this current government or his loathing of Brexit is very much up for debate. What is clear, though, is that his lasting legacy will be as an enthusiastic enabler of the Remainer Parliament, the most openly anti-democratic in recent memory.

As one government source told Buzzfeed’s Alex Wickham last month, just after Bercow announced his retirement, ‘Bercow thinks he’ll walk away as a hero, when most people in the country don’t know who he is and those that do think he’s a nauseating wanker. The man has been central to stopping Brexit – the nation won’t thank him.’

Harsh but true. Speaker Bercow didn’t so much defend parliament against the executive as parliament against the people.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty

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3rd November 2019 at 4:48 am

Thank you God, he.s gone ??????


3rd November 2019 at 4:46 am

It’s a Christmas present, HE has gone. I stopped watching Parliament and news if the biased ELF control freaking bully was on. I will never have the feeling of nails scratching down a blackboard hearing THAT VOICE, clenching my teeth ..Yes there is a God and thank you Jesus ?. ???

In Negative

1st November 2019 at 9:13 am

I’m gonna miss Berkow. He was an extraordinary performer with a keen wit and a playful eloquence.

Stephen J

1st November 2019 at 8:47 am

Surely it is his job to defend parliament from itself, since that is where the executive comes from?

What he is not entitled to do is defend parliament from the sovereign people that elect them. There was a substantial majority for leave and he has done everything he possibly can to thwart that.

A referendum is a strange bird in our constitution, it is a rare event and advisory unless we give the parliamentary approved answer. So confident of us giving the right answer was the then leader, that he also added that whatever path the electorate chose, the government would follow.

See that? This is a contract between the people and the executive… Parliament should not be involved, they had forty years to sort it and they didn’t, instead they chose to misrepresent the people that they are supposed to represent, throughout that period, from 1983 onwards, opinion polls showed a majority in favour of loosening our ties to the EEC/EU.

We needed an exceptional speaker who was willing to get those things into perspective and clearly this little man did not. Perhaps he felt it necessary to satisfy his wife’s Labour proclivities?

Michael Lynch

31st October 2019 at 9:54 pm

History will not be kind to this man. He has been partisan over Brexit when his chair demanded absolute objectivity. The Tories, and any other political enemy he has made, will go after him. It’s open season now, John! There will be even those he viewed as allies that’ll be prepared to throw him under the bus for their own ends. I hope he is braced for the drubbing he is going to get.

Matt Ryan

31st October 2019 at 9:48 pm

While he will no doubt end up with a nice position at a Soros funded organisation, keep the little Walker out of The Lords.

Matt Ryan

31st October 2019 at 9:49 pm

The curse of auto correct and no edit function.

Geoff Cox

31st October 2019 at 9:47 pm

Just in case people are still not sure why Bercow has driven a coach and horses through the Constitution here’s an explanation of how things should have worked.

1. A General Election produces a winning Party who form a Government. They therefore have a mandate which allows them to put forward bills in Parliament based on their Manifesto.
2. The Opposition have no such mandate and therefore cannot put forward legislation.
3. By allowing opposition MPs to take control of legislation and pass the Benn Act for instance, he gave power to MPs who had no mandate to govern.
4. To make matters far worse, the amendments and other pieces of legislation like the Benn Act were enacted specifically to stop Brexit which they actually had a mandate to deliver rather than stop.

The next Speaker needs to order an inquiry into Bercow’s term of office and make it clear these moves were unconstitutional.

Michael Lynch

31st October 2019 at 10:36 pm

Hear, hear.

In Negative

1st November 2019 at 9:47 am

Though I agree that he empowered a parliament that was ostensibly in contempt of the people, I don’t think your argument actually holds.

Your first premise is somewhat ropey given that a great many of the governing party were against the government. If the parliament were in line with the popular will and if the government was using constitutional trickery to act against the popular will, do you think the speaker would have been right to favour the will of the parliament? This would be especially pertinent where the government was in a minority.

Technically, the Parliament represents the people, not the government. The governing party merely has a majority and can therefore ordinarily rely on votes to see through its manifesto commitments. The Benn Act did not stop Brexit, it bound the hands of the government and delayed it and it did so by parliamentary majority. Hence, from a technical perspective, the speaker was representing the people by favouring their representatives.

In this sense, the speaker acted properly. The democratic thing to have done would have been to pass the Benn Act and then immediately go to a general election. In my view, it was in not holding that general election where the real parliamentary bastardry occurred. This whole “we don’t trust Boris” stuff was nonsense and they could have easily forced the election in time for the 31st.

The election finally coming however is a good thing and though Brexit has been delayed, I would say we were back to democratic propriety (constitutional drift aside).

Geoff Cox

1st November 2019 at 4:45 pm

In Negative – no, I don’t think you are right here. I agree there should have been a general election which was prevented by the Opposition using the Fixed Term Parliament Act to block it. The answer was not to allow the Opposition to have their way, the answer was to carry on with business as usual and if every bill failed, then that’s fair enough.

But the EU Withdrawal Act was time limited to Oct 31 when we would have left the EU with or without a deal. This woud have meant the EU taking the negotiations seriously at last and we would now be out of the EU on good terms (or “no deal” which imo are even better terms). This is the reason why the Speaker turned convention on its head.

In Negative

2nd November 2019 at 11:42 am

I think Berkow was in a very tricky situation. Some salient facts:
1) Boris (nor his cabinet) had any electoral approval;
2) Boris’s cabinet were perceived as much harder and more radical than May’s lot;
3) Boris prorogued parliament in an obvious bad faith attempt to bypass the will of parliament and force deal or no deal in the space of a month.
For all these reasons, I think ‘business as usual’ no longer applied. Prorogation ended ‘business as usual’.

Berkow’s job as speaker is to impartially maintain an orderly parliament. For an unelected leader at odds with the majority of parliamentarians to force something through within a month of his taking office isn’t what I’d call orderly.

Berkow had to ask himself what an impartial act would be under these circumstances and I think technically he was justified in favouring parliament. My reasoning goes thusly:
1) An unelected government was acting in bad faith to block parliament;
2) The parliament are the technical representatives of the people;
3) A technical judgement is a non-political judgement and therefore impartial;

Berkow’s decision did not stop or delay Brexit, it merely allowed the people’s representatives the opportunity to prevent something they disapproved of. The parliament did not have to vote through the Benn act – that was their doing. Berkow merely facilitated it. His hands are clean of what followed.

What the parliamentarians should have done is to legislate for a GE at the same time as they put through the Benn Act – that way the people would have had the opportunity to approve it. They should probably have overturned the prorogation too, in order to prevent it going to the supreme court and that whole mess.

Under any normal circumstances, we’d be saying Berkow did his job correctly. I don’t think Berkow had any right to intuit the will of the people, but he did have justification for defending the people’s representatives.

Geoff Cox

5th November 2019 at 8:45 am

Firstly, the prorogation occured after the Benn Act was passed and in any event “business as usual” had ended months before that.

Secondly, whilst Boris was not elected, he still had the right to be PM by virtue of being the leader of the largest Party. The Opposition could have gone for a GE, but they chose not too. Hence Boris and all his Cabinet had legitimacy – they are certainly more legitimate than a bunch of MPs who had stood on one platform and now want to deliver the opposite.

Thirdly, The Benn Act and Bercow certainly did delay Brexit – again. Now we have to roll the dice for a third time to get Brexit done. How many mandates do we need – we’ve had 2 ie the referendum and the 2017 election. Remainers hope for is a single mandate to stop Brexit – then all the other mandates will be forgotten about.

Dominic Straiton

31st October 2019 at 5:10 pm

The only way to return Parliament to sanity is to consign his every act and decision to oblivion. Abolish the “supreme court” and judicial review.And abolish the fixed term parliament. And teach the British constitution in schools. Its really hard. Its “like an ancient forest that when closely observed shows many signs of pruning and cultivation” . Its by far the best way to deliver freedom ever conceived. And all the wigs, crowns and stockings are not ridiculous but are simply the outward symbols of a thousand years of a march to freedom. Betty Boothroyd (labour) understood this. We should introduce a new tradition when Parliament once again becomes sovereign, and definitely get rid of Bercows star wars costume.

Alex Cameron

31st October 2019 at 5:03 pm

Brilliant obituary by Slater, made me laugh out loud twice and thump the table more. When I read Johnstone’s quote ‘10
tumultuous years in your high chair’ I heard…. ‘you big fat feckin baby’

Jane 70

31st October 2019 at 4:46 pm

Good bye and good riddance to the parliamentary ELF- Evil Little F….r.
His bias, pomposity, growling ,grand standing and Remain bias have been responsible in no small part for the present impasse.

Ven Oods

31st October 2019 at 3:58 pm

Ghastly little wonk is so far up himself, he’s virtually a Moebius Strip.

Jim Lawrie

31st October 2019 at 3:33 pm

“He expanded urgent questions and emergency debates to keep government and ministers more on their toes. All good things in themselves. All true democrats should want a parliament that keeps the executive in check.” The executive was not kept in check, it was straitjacketed on the subjective whims of a self-aggrandising narcissist who loved the sound of his own voice. He sided with big business and foreigners against our country. He did not exercise judgement, he imposed his agenda. He will be remembered as a slimey, sniveling, treacherous, toad, whose loyalty lay elsewhere than this country. A smug little nobody with a severe case of the great man complex.

It is for the likes of him that Parliament needs the Eric Joyces of this world.

He created a Parliament in his own image. Arrogant, lowbrow and contemptuous of basic standards of decency and fair play. May he sleep like a clubbed seal.

Neil McCaughan

31st October 2019 at 3:25 pm

Corrupt little man. How appropriate that his only personal friend in the House is Keith Vaz.

Michael Lynch

31st October 2019 at 11:22 pm

You can tell from the pose in the lead photo of him that he has an arrogant air of superiority. So up his own backside. I wonder what he’s thinking looking out that Westminster window – is he surveying a democracy that he alone controls, his own little empire?

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