3 September 2019

If there is an election, the Tories should go after John Bercow

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Over ten years ago John Bercow was elected Speaker of the House of Commons. While he has certain important positive qualities this was always a controversial choice. To start with he was very much the Labour candidate, despite having been nominally a Conservative MP. Only a tiny number of his fellow Tory MPs voted for him. Traditionally it was understood as a basic requirement of being Speaker that you could carry broad respect from across the House of Commons.

Furthermore, this election took place at a time when trust in politicians had taken a blow over the expenses scandal. Bercow was among the worst offenders. He had “flipped” the designation of his main and second homes between London and his constituency so that he could designate each as his main home at the time he sold it. It meant he paid no Capital Gains Tax on either sale.

But more fundamental were the personality flaws. The petulance, the tantrums and egomania that made him one of the most unsuitable MPs to preside over proceedings it is possible to imagine.

Originally we had a pledge form Bercow to stand down after nine years. It then changed to this summer. Yet he keeps on going. This is despite allegations of bullying of parliamentary staff – despite his pious lectures about the importance of good conduct.

While Bercow’s bias against the Conservatives has been apparent to observers for years it is his stance on the EU referendum that was most blatant. He announced that he voted Remain “very clear, resonant Remain note”. His official parking space had a vehicle with a sticker on the windscreen proclaiming: “Bollocks to Brexit, it’s not a done deal”. Bercow said the car belonged to his wife. Be that as it may, his plotting with Remain MPs has now become so extensive that nobody even bothers to deny it any more.

Natascha Engel, a former Labour MP who served as a deputy Speaker, says that Bercow is “in open opposition” to people who voted Leave and he should accept he cannot change his role from “impartial referee to partisan player-manager”. To which I suppose Bercow would shrug and say he can get away with whatever MPs will let him get away with.

So will The Speaker go on and on? If we have an early General Election there is every sign that he would try to continue in the new Parliament. Suggestions that he would not be granted a peerage give him an incentive to cling on for as long as he can, regardless of previous undertakings.

However, there is another potential threat to Bercow and that is from the people of Buckingham. Conventionally the main parties don’t field candidates against the Speaker. But then that is based on the convention that he or she is impartial.

Buckingham is traditionally among the safest Conservative seats in the country. In 1992 George Walden was returned for the Conservatives with a majority of 19,791. Even in 1997, when Blair came in with a landslide, Bercow won as the new Tory MP with a majority of 12,386, it nudged back up to 18,129 by 2005.

In the 2010 General Election there was a challenge from then Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who fought an energetic campaign. He even hired a plane on polling day and had a banner made reading: “Vote for your country, Vote Ukip”. One of the banner’s ropes became wrapped around the tail of the plane which caused a crash. Farage says: “I remember thinking: So this is it. This is how it ends.” Under the circumstances, Farage probably felt that only winning 8,410 votes to Bercow’s 22,860 was a rather footling matter.

David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth, suggests it may be time for his party to break with convention.

“Remain-supporting MPs — including Mr Bercow — are using every trick in the book and tearing up all precedents to try to prevent the democratic voice of the public from being heard on Brexit. We have to fight this battle in the same way,” he says.

“If that means breaking the precedent of not standing against the Speaker in his constituency at the next general election, then so be it.”

Should the Conservatives do so it would by no means follow that Bercow would be ousted. In the EU referendum there was a slight lead for Remain locally, and Bercow is an assiduous constituency MP. The Conservative Association will include councillors and activists with a feeling of personal loyalty to him, even if they disagree with his views. And, as in every election since 2010, Labour and the Lib Dems will not field candidates and urge residents to vote for Bercow.

Yet those in Buckingham who wish to vote for a Conservative should have the chance to do so. If an early election takes place before Brexit has happened then the case for this is even stronger. It is inconsistent for the Conservatives to pledge to leave the EU while endorsing those seeking to thwart that from happening. That means deselecting those Conservative MPs determined to frustrate Brexit. It must also surely mean denying Bercow a free pass.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist