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What the Speaker Bercow Stories Failed to Say

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, at the Palace of Westminster, London, May 24, 2019

Americans are anxious about their own democracy. So it is understandable that many should view with admiration legislatures elsewhere that seem to be making a decent fist of constraining reckless executive power. John Bercow, who this week announced his departure as the Speaker of the House of Commons, appears to have become an American hero in recent months. From the Speaker’s Office, which referees the business of the House of Commons, Bercow has repeatedly asserted the rights of Parliament against two successive Tory governments, as first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson sought to ram through contentious Brexit policies. 

Some of these interventions have taken Bercow from umpire on the sideline to center of the story. In January, Prime Minister May demanded more “consistent interpretation” of the rules after Bercow unusually allowed the rebel backbench MP Dominic Grieve to submit an amendment on a government motion that was intended not to be altered. Last week, Bercow’s latest intervention enabled Grieve and others to wrest back control of Commons business and legislate to prevent Johnson from carrying his threat to lead the country into a no-deal, hard Brexit on October 31. Over the year, Bercow has himself become a focus of international news reports. American late night TV hosts Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert both affectionately mimic his rhetorical flourishes. His characteristic bellow from the Speaker’s chair of “ORDERRR! ORDERRR!” has made him a YouTube star. 

For many Americans, particularly progressive Americans dismayed at all but a handful of Republicans’ unwillingness to criticize President Trump, this parliamentary insurgency to thwart Johnson has made Bercow a British role-model. Appealing as this narrative is, however, it contains significant omissions. Bercow’s resignation this week was not merely a punctuation point in the magical-realist telenovela that is Britain’s attempt to exit the European Union. It marks an intersection between two sweeping international movements: a story as much about #MeToo, which casts Bercow as a villain, as it is about the wave of populism against which Bercow has cast himself as resistance hero. The Speaker’s resignation follows a series of independent reports into a culture of bullying and sexual harassment in the House of Commons—an employment culture that it was his job to regulate. To be clear, there are no allegations of sexual harassment against Bercow personally; there are serious allegations (which he denies) of bullying. 

A year ago, I wrote for the Daily about my experience as a sexual harassment complainant against another senior politician when the #MeToo movement hit Britain’s Parliament—a movement that drew attention not just to sexual misconduct by public figures, but also to workplace bullying and abuse. My own testimony had nothing to do with Bercow. But in the wave of exposés that emerged at the same time, the flagship BBC news show Newsnight broadcast in May last year allegations that the Speaker was an egregious workplace bully. Among other claims, the BBC reported that Bercow’s private secretary, Kate Emms, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after nine months of working for him. (In a petty twist, Emms was removed from the design of Bercow’s official portrait after complaining.)

As Speaker of the House, Bercow was responsible for all matters concerning the employment of staff and the discipline of members in the House of Commons; Newsnight alleged that staff lacked confidence in a Speaker who protected his friends from accountability and was himself a bully. Shortly afterwards, The Times of London published criticisms of Bercow by former Commons staff for blocking a BBC Freedom of Information request into bullying claims against his ally, the MP Keith Vaz.

In the wake of these allegations and others, the House of Commons commissioned an independent investigation by Dame Laura Cox, a High Court judge. Cox’s report, published in October 2018, was damning. She found that the “sense of loyalty [of the many Commons staff who had written to her] has been tested to breaking point by a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.” Cox focused on the so-called clerks of the Commons: staff who work directly and impartially with representatives to ensure that legislation is drafted and scrutinized appropriately. From her previous experience as a respected employment lawyer, Cox described having seen “several decades” of reforms in the employment practices of industries regulated by laws written in the House of Commons itself. Yet the improvement in the rest of the country, Cox wrote, only “marks the House out as a stark reminder of how bad things used to be.”

Prohibited by her remit from naming names, Cox was nonetheless pointed in her remarks about the leadership of the House. “I find it difficult to envisage,” she said, how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration”—which she had defined in the report as including the Speaker and his office. “It may be,” she concluded, “that some individuals will want to think very carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button.” This statement was widely reported at the time as tantamount to a call for Bercow to resign.

Bercow, however, did not resign at the time. MPs who valued his interventions on Brexit argued that his presence in the Speaker’s chair was essential to Parliament’s capacity to act ahead of the original Brexit deadline of March 2019. Dame Margaret Beckett, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, gave an interview in which she was asked if her support for Bercow’s position on Brexit meant that she was tolerating bullying. “Abuse is terrible,” she allowed, “but yes, if it comes to the constitutional future of this country, the most difficult decision we have made, not since the war but possibly, certainly in all our lifetimes, hundreds of years, yes it trumps bad behaviour.” One wonders whether the staff in her Westminster office agreed.

Instead, Bercow quietly brokered a deal. He would resign, his supporters let it be known, in the summer of 2019—after what was then the timetabled date for Britain’s departure from the EU. This plan, they judged, would appease Bercow’s critics but allow him to leave on the high of having completed a difficult job. The subsequent delay in the Brexit schedule from March to October thus explains the timing of the Speaker’s resignation statement this week. 

Other factors also came into play: Bercow’s hand was certainly forced this week by threats that the Conservative Party would run a candidate against him in a forthcoming general election. This breach of protocol—that traditionally allows the sitting Speaker to run as an unchallenged independent—was clearly an act of government hostility stemming from Bercow’s disagreements with the Conservative government on Brexit. But it was only his previous promise to stand down this summer that could have given anyone the political cover to challenge him. This week’s resignation is confirmation of a departure forced by the Cox Report nearly a year ago.

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Speaker Bercow during a Brexit debate, House of Commons, London, March 27, 2019

Britons are not unused to foreign media failing to grasp the granular details of our small islands politics. Much British coverage of US news is equally lacking in nuance and detail (though not, as President Donald Trump yelped on arrival for a recent visit, because of any predominance of CNN screens). But it was striking that neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times made any mention of the Cox Report in their coverage this week of Bercow’s resignation. The Post wrote of Bercow “delighting fans around the world with his rhetorical flourishes”; the Times suggested that Bercow’s background as the son of a cabdriver had at times “isolated him in the clubby halls of Parliament.” (Although his father did later in life drive a cab, he was in fact a small businessman for much of Bercow’s childhood. As his biographer Bobby Friedman points out, Bercow was raised “in middle-class comfort” in suburban London, where he became a national youth tennis champion.) Two further Times profiles of Bercow, published in January and March of this year, also failed to mention the bullying allegations, but perpetuated the idea that criticism of Bercow comes exclusively from the Brexiteer right.

It is easy to see why the anti-populist left, on both sides of the Atlantic desperate for good news, is tempted to make an uncomplicated hero of John Bercow. His own political journey has seen him move from the right of the Tory Party to the liberal-left of British politics. Once a member of the anti-immigrant Monday Club, when he called for the “assisted repatriation” of immigrants, nowadays Bercow makes public stands against the xenophobia of Donald Trump. Despite his former membership of the Tory Euroskeptic Bruges Club, Bercow now drives a car with a bumper sticker reading “Bollocks to Brexit” (the property, he says, of his wife, a Labour Party activist). During his Monday Club days, a fellow member described him as “more right-wing than Marie Antoinette.” It was a bien-pensant redemption story: if even John Bercow could see the light—resigning from the Tory front bench in 2002 in order to support a Labour vote in favor of adoption by same-sex couples—perhaps other reactionary politicians can do so, too. 

To some, the extreme nature of Bercow’s mid-career conversion looked cynical, especially when he then relied on Labour votes to win him the Speaker’s chair. Friedman views his grand shifts in more psychological terms: “when John Bercow decides he’s going to support something, he decides he has to be the biggest cheer-leader for it he can be.” A decade ago, John Bercow was responsible for establishing the first creche at the House of Commons, easing the lives of working parents and nursing mothers. Kamal El-Hajji, who is Parliament’s first ethnic minority Serjeant-at-Arms, and the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, its first black chaplain, are among Bercow’s most fervent supporters. (Critics point out that they owe their appointments to him, too.) A video from last year that showed Bercow upbraiding Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, for referring to an opposition spokeswoman by her husband’s title, rather than her own name, has registered more than half a million views on YouTube. John Bercow: feminist icon. 

People whose cause Bercow champions thus speak of real and lasting change made on their behalf: one activist in the Welsh Parliament spoke to me of Bercow as the first Speaker of the Commons to engage directly with regional parliaments and ensure that smaller, regional charities would be called regularly to Westminster’s select committees instead of exclusively London-based organizations. (“We complained to him and change happened,” this person said.) 

Nevertheless, Bercow is also bombastic and assertive. Britain’s parliamentary debates are notorious for their raucous nature and Bercow’s approach has to been to answer noise and fury from the benches with noise and fury from the chair. Those who’ve worked with him say the noise and fury continues in his office. As with many cases of liberal politicians caught out by the #MeToo movement, it has been hard for Bercow’s admirers to recognize that a politician who has been responsible for significant progressive reforms in politics can also be part of the problem. 

The historian Peter Hennessey has often written about the “good chap theory” of British government, drawing on a phrase first used by Clive Priestley, a former chief of staff in Margaret Thatcher’s Efficiency Unit. The British constitution may be unwritten, but according to Hennessey, it relies on the concept that “good chaps” understand where its lines are drawn, gentlemen and good sports who adhere to the unwritten rules of the game. In the continuing chaos of British politics, John Bercow has been seen by his supporters as the ultimate good chap in the umpire’s chair. But his friends adhere to another rule of the good chaps’ game: they know not to talk about how he treats his staff. 

Bercow’s resignation on Tuesday was followed by nearly an hour and a half of tributes by fellow MPs. Less reported, at least in the foreign press, was that many representatives also walked out of the chamber in protest. Nigel Fletcher, an academic at King’s College London who specializes in British political institutions, wrote:

He has made himself a very divisive figure… Seeing half the House applauding him whilst the other sat in silence was a striking demonstration of that harmful split, at a time when we need the Speaker to command confidence across the House as an impartial arbiter.

The staff of the House of Commons are certainly asking for better. This Thursday, more than fifty current and former parliamentary staff signed an open letter to The Times of London, calling on all candidates to replace Bercow as Speaker to commit to implementing the Cox Report’s recommendations in full. They do not have many reasons to be hopeful that the culture will change fast, even after Bercow’s departure. This spring saw the publication of two more independent inquiries into bullying and harassment in Westminster, authored respectively by two “Queen’s Counsel” senior lawyers: Gemma White’s into treatment of Commons staff and Naomi Ellenbogen’s into the same issues in the Lords. Both reports were equally damning; neither has led to significant change.

For many staff, listening to Tuesday’s tribute speeches had been particularly hard. One clerk, writing to me on condition of anonymity because she still works in the House of Commons, said it was “painful, especially as many of those speaking were well aware of his ‘other side.’” Of the international coverage of Bercow’s tenure, she commented: “It’s natural that they want to paint a picture of a hero and a champion of the underdogs, but unfortunately for underdogs he has been neither hero or champion. In fact, quite the opposite.” 

Progressives, in both Britain and America, have consistently found it difficult to accept that their own political leaders can fall on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. The continuing US debate over accusations against former Senator Al Franken has made that clear. The controversial career of John Bercow should remind us that few progressives, in fact, are uncomplicated heroes. It should remind Americans, too, to take a closer look before adopting other countries’ colorful politicians as talk show icons.