As speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow oversees debates and maintains order. He is the ultimate authority, charged with deciding who can and can’t speak, inhabiting a role that dates back 800 years.
But his unconventional approach has attracted criticism that he has been undermining one of the most important positions in British democracy even before a row erupted last week on his long-standing opposition to allowing President Trump to address Parliament. Unless he changes his mind, Trump will not be speaking.
The Washington Examiner Reports:
Diminutive and belligerent, he has been dismissed as a “sanctimonious dwarf,” dogged by bullying allegations and accused of hijacking Brexit wrangling to put himself on newspaper front pages.
With Trump’s long-delayed state visit announced last week, Bercow, who stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall, is back in the headlines, even as he faces fresh efforts to remove him from the job.
Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of Parliament who has tabled a no-confidence motion in the speaker, told the Washington Examiner his treatment of Trump was another example of his inability to put aside his personal views for the impartiality demanded of the post.
“He’s still a pugilistic politician. And he’s using the office of speaker to advance his own causes and views — occasionally subtly, occasionally overtly unsubtly,” he said. “He expressed his view on Trump when the House of Commons has never taken a formal view on The Donald, as far as I know, and the speaker is a servant of the House and should only be there to express the views of the House and not go beyond that.”
Bercow went public with his views in 2017, saying an address to Parliament was “not an automatic right, it is an earned honor” before describing his reservations over Trump’s travel ban.
While he won the support of a swath of public opinion, he also attracted the ire of government officials and Trump supporters.
It was typical of Bercow, said his biographer Bobby Friedman, that he could not do things by halves. “It has to be 300% instead,” Friedman said. “That’s why it’s not enough for him just to criticize Trump or to not want him to come. He has to turn it into refusing to go to the state banquet, refusing to have him in Parliament.”
The 56-year-old Conservative took on the role of speaker in 2009. Since then, he has won praise for making it easier for MPs to hold the British government to account.
And his unique style of oratory and deployment of imaginative insults have turned him into a parliamentary star whose name is known well beyond political circles – where he attracts more scorn than admiration. “We do not need sedentary chuntering,” he said on one occasion as he rebuked to a noisy Commons.
Such florid interjections fuel a sense that the speaker is always seeking the limelight, a tendency exhibited since childhood, according to Friedman, whose book is titled, Bercow, Mr. Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party.
“When he was a kid, he used to sit on the wall outside his home with a copy of the London Times, a huge broadsheet as it was then, almost bigger than him,” he said. “He’d peer out over the top and opine on big issues of the day to people who would walk past.”
He quickly realized that his speaking ability and intellect were a way to take on the bullies who singled him out for his greasy hair, spots, and short stature. And he continued to use those qualities as a weapon into adulthood, said Friedman.
The approach has brought controversy and enemies. He was famously once dismissed as a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” by a minister and has a long-running feud with Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, whom he was accused of calling a “stupid woman.”
Along with other senior figures, he came under intense pressure to resign last year after an investigation into bullying and harassment found a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” in Parliament.
He has denied allegations that he bullied two former members of staff.
He has also provided plenty of fodder for Britain’s tabloid newspapers, which turned him into a figure of fun. His wife Sally posed for a photo shoot in 2011 draped in only a bedsheet while posing in a hotel room overlooking the Commons.
“Becoming Speaker has turned my husband into a sex symbol,” she told the Evening Standard. TV appearances followed, including on “Celebrity Big Brother,” as well as plans for a comic novel about life in Parliament. Details of an affair with her husband’s cousin Alan Bercow, a lawyer, ended up in the newspapers. She described herself as a “terrible wife” in a “difficult marriage.”
But it is Bercow’s role in Brexit that has brought most scrutiny. Critics say he has sided with opponents of Theresa May, the prime minister, as she struggled to steer her exit proposals through Parliament.
In March, he ruled that she could not bring a third version of her plan for a vote unless it changed substantially from two rejected versions. He helped Labour politicians bring a contempt motion against the government over its handling of the issue.
And according to the Financial Times, in one debate, he called on 31 MPs who were critical of May before calling anyone who supported her plan. The calculation is clear, according to Friedman, his biographer. So long as he has the support of half of MPs in a divided, polarized chamber, it does not matter how much he infuriates the rest.
It makes him impervious to demands from ministers and his former allies on Conservative benches that he backs down to allow Trump to address Parliament. “He has factored this in, and he doesn’t care, and by his nature, he will just double down,” he said.