John Bercow is a pompous, smug, self-important showman.
The only thing he likes more than the sound of his own voice is being in the limelight – and he isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers in his never-ending search for it.
He has turned the centuries-old office of the speaker of the House of Commons into a cross between his own personal cabaret stage and an extension of parliament’s anti-Brexit operation.
The one redeeming consequence of his actions during the Brexit process is that the spotlight that illuminates him also reveals a key and hitherto relatively unknown part of our unwritten constitution: the role of parliamentary procedure and the power of those that control it.
As the holder of a position whose relevance used to go virtually unnoticed by all but the most avid watchers of the BBC Parliament channel, Bercow has shot to stardom as the latest spanner in Theresa May’s ever-stalling Brexit engine.
With 10 days to go until the UK’s scheduled Brexit date, May’s plan was to ramp up support for her withdrawal agreement and get MPs to vote again ahead of tomorrow’s summit of EU leaders.
The speaker was having none of it.
He cited the 400-year old precedent that MPs should not be asked to vote twice on the same question in a single parliamentary session. So May is unable to call a third “meaningful vote” unless it is on a deal substantially different to the one that has already been twice rejected.
But beyond Brexit, what this shock intervention has done is aim attention squarely at Bercow, his office, and the shadowy backstage world of parliamentary procedure.
First, the man. Bercow is widely regarded as abrasive, conceited, and downright discourteous.
When the report into Westminster harassment and bullying came out last autumn, the speaker faced calls to resign, due to both his failure to properly address complaints and allegations around his own conduct. He refused to stand down.
He has also used the office of speaker as a platform for his own self-aggrandisement.
Two years ago he made headlines for saying that Donald Trump should not address parliament (taking command of British foreign policy), while throughout the Brexit process he has taken every opportunity to frustrate the government’s efforts to deliver on the referendum result.
The government has shot itself in the foot on plenty of occasions, but Bercow is always on hand offering to reload the revolver. He is basking in the limelight, while a different speaker might have lurked in the safely neutral shadows.
But the light isn’t just on him – it’s on the office itself, and what it represents. If you’d never really thought about what the speaker does, here’s part of the description from the UK parliament website:
“The speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times.”
Clearly, there are questions about Bercow’s impartiality.
The MPs he has called to speak and the amendments he has selected in previous debates have helped shape the Brexit narrative. Indeed, his decision to ignore the advice of his clerks and allow a vote on a controversial amendment in January was met with accusations that the speaker had gone rogue.
Can the holder of his little-noticed position wield such power over an elected Prime Minister? Is that really how our democracy works?
In short, yes. British parliamentary democracy is ruthlessly efficient when the governing party has a strong majority. The executive (the government) and legislative (parliament) branches are tightly bound.
Most of the time, the speaker can play all the games they like, but it won’t stop a strong government from hurtling legislation through the House.
May doesn’t have a majority – she threw that away in the 2017 election. Nor does she have consensus within her own party, or any desire to reach across the aisle for compromising unity. Without the support of parliament, her party, or even much of her cabinet, this Prime Minister is virtually powerless.
Power abhors a vacuum, and figures from unlikely quarters – the speaker’s office, the Tory backbenches, the House of Lords – are stepping up to fill it.
And, on the whole, we should be grateful that they are.
Whatever you think of Bercow’s character, May’s strategy of forcing MPs to vote on her deal again and again until she gets the answer she wants is not only ironic for such a fierce opponent of a second referendum, but serves to highlight the failure of her original approach and the deficiencies of the deal she’s negotiated.
The clock is running down, and May has wasted enough time in paralysis. She won’t change course, her party wouldn’t get rid of her, the opposition can’t, so now someone has come along to kickstart an inert government back into doing its job.
Maybe when all this is over, it will be time for a national conversation about how parliament works – a written constitution perhaps, reform of the House of Lords, and (fingers crossed) a new speaker.
For now, this is British parliamentary democracy in all its messy, technical, infuriating glory. It’s boisterous and complicated and unpredictable – but it’s working.