9 February 2017
John Bercow put his foot in it.
The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, has caused controversy with ill-advised remarks criticising the democratically elected leader of the free world. In an unnecessary intervention, the Speaker voiced opposition to Mr Trump delivering an address to the British parliament, insisting that the American President violated standards against “racism and sexism” that define the institution. He now faces a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons.
He has been roundly criticised and was forced to issue an apology to his counterpart in the House of Lords, the Tory peer and former Conservative Party chairman Lord Fowler. Fowler confirmed that “yesterday in the Commons, Mr Bercow said that he was opposed to the President speaking. I should make it clear that I was not consulted on that decision or its timing… [Bercow] told me that while he maintained his view on the issue he was generally sorry for failing to consult with me.”
A responsibility to be neutral
The outburst has been widely condemned by Commons colleagues too, including by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Crispin Blunt. “He has no idea whether he will be speaking for a majority of the House of Commons, and this is why Speakers do not express their opinion. That’s the entire point, otherwise they can’t remain neutral and above the political fray.”
But he did have some supporters among the least reputable members of our legislature. Remoaner Owen Smith, who was trounced by Jeremy Corbyn in last summer’s Labour leadership election after running on the promise of a second EU referendum, hailed the Speaker by saying that he “showed great leadership today, standing up against racism and expressing his objection to President Trump addressing Parliament.”
Bercow is flouting the responsibilities of the Speakership as he enjoys the benefits of the office. By long standing convention, given the political neutrality of the Speaker, his seat is not contested by major political opponents. Since gaining the office in 2009, Bercow has not faced electoral challenges from Labour or Liberal Democrat politicians and has held his seat with little issue.
In 2010 one politician – Nigel Farage – had the wisdom to expose the charade and challenge for the seat but was unfortunately unsuccessful after suffering a plane accident. Hopefully Bercow’s recent abuse of the position will spark greater competition in the future.
The criticism is especially strange coming from Bercow, who has a history of far-right beliefs and a generally welcoming attitude towards foreign dictators who, unlike Trump, have actually trampled on the civil rights of their people – including women and gays. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and the Emir of Kuwait are among the foreign guests he has welcomed to the Commons and permitted to speak to Parliament. He also provided hospitality to dignitaries from the one party states of Vietnam and North Korea in his role as Speaker.
His prior political positions also veer into legitimate racism – unlike the policies of Mr Trump, who has merely been the victim of a media smear campaign. In 1981 Bercow stood for a national executive position at the far-right Monday Club where he insisted that “the strengthening of our national identity demands a programme of assisted repatriation”. He eventually became secretary to the immigration and repatriation committee of the Club, which was committed to “an end to New Commonwealth and Pakistan immigration, a properly financed system of voluntary repatriation, the repeal of the Race Relations Act and the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality.”
Bercow seems to have been no fan of women or homosexuals in his student days either, with fellow students at the University of Essex attesting to his tendency towards “attacking left-wingers, gays, and feminists.”
The importance of the special relationship
As we leave the European Union to pursue richer opportunities around the planet, Bercow’s foolish intervention appears to be an act of immense sabotage that may have consequences for our future relationship with one of our closest historic allies – and the largest single economy on the planet (about $4.5bn larger than the EU27).
Trump is a noted Anglophile, who has warmly embraced major British politicians like Nigel Farage as major partners, and his team have been quick to stress the importance of swiftly negotiated and effective trade agreement between our two nations. What sort of message does it send that such a friendly start to a new US administration has been responded to with thoughtless slander?
MPs have reacted appropriately. Following the initial round of criticism, pressure now mounts to oust the Speaker. James Duddridge, a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has written to Downing Street to confirm that a vote of no confidence in the Speaker would not be whipped. Following confirmation, he has tabled a motion of no confidence that could be deadly for the Speaker.
A number of ministers have told The Times that they would oppose Bercow should such a vote occur, and rumours swirl that 150 Tory MPs could oppose Bercow continuing in his role. But he may be saved by SNP and Labour MPs, highlighting how far he has drifted since taking office in 2009.