John Bercow was the first politician I ever met. In October 2012 I went to an event which he was hosting on the legacy of the London Olympics at the University of Salford. On the whole I was mostly impressed with him. He may have made some rather pretentious comments about tennis and accidentally walked into the ladies’ loos but he was well spoken and appeared easy to like. However, since then my views on Speaker Bercow have been mixed. On the one hand he certainly has reformed the House of Commons for the better. Most notably he has increased the amount of Urgent Questions in the House dramatically, allowing for much more government scrutiny. On the other hand I find his style of speakership particularly grating with him regularly interrupting debates with longwinded putdowns that are both quite often rude and unnecessary. Outside of the House he has also caused controversy. For example, the debacle he created in 2014 by trying to recruit Carol Mills as the new Clerk of the House of Commons. All of this has increasingly given me doubts about his suitability for the role of Speaker.
These doubts were made certain in the past couple of months with numerous reports coming out about him allegedly bullying House of Commons staff throughout his tenure as Speaker. These allegations have of course not been proven and many in the media have insisted that they are simply smears on his character by his critics. However, there is not usually so much smoke without a good deal of fire. The sheer amount of reports on his behaviour suggests that not all is right. It also is not too much of a leap of the imagination to recognise that Bercow’s abrasive style in the House may very well carry on to his day to day running of the Commons. Therefore, despite there not being complete evidence to suggest that he is guilty of bullying, I think there is a good case to be made that he should resign as Speaker.
Only two speakers have ever been forced to step down due to scandal. They were Sir John Trevor in 1695 and Michael Martin in 2009. The cases of both can be related to the position of John Bercow in 2018. Sir John Trevor was a Welsh lawyer who held two separate terms as Speaker. The first was from 1685-1687 and the second was from 1689 to his ousting in 1695. Apart from being the first ever speaker to be forced from office by his peers he is most famous for being cross-eyed. This caused tremendous difficulties during his speakership as MPs had very little idea when he gestured for someone to speak as to whom he was actually referring to! This lead to the creation of a new rule in the Commons, still active today, that a Speaker must name an MP before allowing them to speak. He was forced out of office after being found guilty of a high crime and misdemeanour for accepting a £1100 donation from the common council of London for promoting the orphans bill.
Michael Martin is the only other Speaker who has been forced out of office in such a way. The Commons needed a scapegoat during the expenses scandal and Martin served that role. MPs believed he had to go as he was seen as a hindrance to much needed parliamentary reform. The fatal blow was a motion of no confidence led by Douglas Carswell that pushed Martin into resigning. Unlike Trevor, he was not forced out due to corruption, although some of his parliamentary expenses were questionable. Rather, the reason his resignation was necessary was because he had fallen behind the times and had become a burden rather than an asset to the House. The House recognised that he represented the old order and that a new Speaker was needed to rejuvenate the Commons and bring it into the modern age. Bercow was the man they believed could fulfill that role.
There are therefore perhaps two precedents for why a speaker may be forced from office: high crimes and misdemeanours and no longer being an asset to the House. So does John Bercow fit either of these categories? The answer is yes to the latter, and certainly so for the former if the bullying allegations prove to be true.
Firstly, if the bully allegations are true this certainly can be seen as a misdemeanour. Bercow said so himself in the Commons stating that there ‘must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying’ by MPs both ‘at Westminster or elsewhere.’ There does seem to be growing amounts of evidence that Bercow is guilty of such a misdemeanour. David Leakey, Black Rod between 2011 and 2018, remarked this year that Bercow ‘creates a climate of intimidation and fear amongst a whole group of people.’ Such people he said included MPs, journalists and staff who felt intimidated by Bercow which had a negative effect on the business of the House. Angus Sinclair is another notable figure to make such allegations. He served under Bercow as Speaker’s secretary for his first year as Speaker. In this time he witnessed Bercow bullying him and his colleagues, shouting and mimicking staff to undermine them. Most shockingly he said that in a fit of rage Bercow once smashed his phone on his desk. Certainly, if these allegations are true then Bercow must resign. Such behaviour is unfit for the modern workplace and far below what should be expected of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Secondly, even if these bullying allegations are not true it could be argued that Bercow should resign as he is no longer an asset to the House. Although he has had some considerable successes as Speaker, he is now becoming a distraction from the actual function of the Commons and has come to epitomise the current bullying scandal in the Commons. Much like Martin in 2009, he is becoming the face of this new growing scandal. Surely like Martin he should step aside to allow someone untainted by these allegations to rejuvenate the House, like Bercow did himself. Bercow has become part of the problem and not the solution. It also must be noted that if he did not resign this year then he would be breaking his 2009 promise to step down after nine years as Speaker. This would surely undermine the whole Bercow project. He promised his Speakership would bring more transparency and honesty to the Commons. By failing to resign now he would be completely disregarding this vision.
Therefore, there is a clear cut case for Bercow to resign. Despite him being one of the most active and successful Speakers in the history of the role these bullying allegations mark the point where he must go. Both Sir John Trevor and Michael Martin’s times as Speaker prove that under circumstances a Speaker must step down for the good of the house. The role of Speaker is not above the law and common decency and a Speaker must continue to be useful and not a burden to the house if he wishes to continue in the role. John Bercow, regardless of mine or anyone else’s personal opinion of him, falls into both these categories. He should step down now, leaving the position of Speaker to his successor in a much better state than where he found it.