Who is John Bercow? The speaker in the eye of the Brexit storm

The House of Commons speaker has at times upset many on both the left and right, but he has his admirers as well.

John Bercow - reuters
Order! John Bercow has been on an ideological journey as the ostensibly politically neutral speaker of the House of Commons [Reuters]

London, UK – As Britain’s strained politics enter a critical phase with the clock ticking down to the country’s departure from the European Union without a deal, a key actor in the Brexit drama has taken centre stage.

All eyes are on parliamentary speaker John Bercow, whose decisions on Tuesday will determine whether MPs can prevent the “no-deal” EU exit that economists say would harm the United Kingdom – and could in turn trigger a snap general election.

Controversial and outspoken, the 56-year-old is central to a struggle between the elected legislature of the House of Commons and Prime Minister Boris Johnson that will determine the nation’s fate for years to come.

Known for his bark of “Order, Order!” to quieten parliamentarians, Bercow has both been accused of bullying – one source told Al Jazeera that “power has gone to his head” – and praised for being a champion of parliamentary sovereignty.

“What comes over when you meet John Bercow is his dedication to parliament, his dedication to the job, and his determination that he is not going to sway towards one party or another – and he is not going to let ideology trump what’s right,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera.

Johnson’s plan to suspend UK Parliament sparks anger

“He also comes over as an extremely quick-witted and intelligent man.”

As the non-partisan representative of parliament’s interests, the speaker has found himself at the heart of a last-ditch attempt by opposition MPs and rebels from the ruling Conservative Party to fast-track legislation aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit.

A bill published on Monday would force Johnson to seek an extension of the October 31 deadline, putting Bercow – who will decide if it can proceed – in a position of supreme power.

Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, said: “MPs want to try and introduce legislation to try and force the government’s hand, but to be able to do that they need to be able to take control of the order paper – and this is where Bercow will play a key role. Everyone is assuming that he will allow it.”

‘Constitutional outrage’

Bercow’s reaction to Johnson’s plan to “prorogue” parliament through a five-week suspension in the crucial run-up to Brexit epitomises his approach.


With characteristic vigour, the speaker branded the move a “constitutional outrage” designed to gag MPs, reinforcing protests against what some have called a “coup” and unease among experts.

“I think it is deeply disingenuous of the government to claim that this is just a normal prorogation – if it were they would only need to have prorogued the House for a few days in order to have a Queen’s Speech,” said Hannah White, the Institute for Government’s deputy director.

“Certainly the prime minister has the power to prorogue the House, but to do it for this excessive length of time when the country is facing such a significant moment is constitutionally undesirable.”

Opponents claim Johnson is intent on engineering a no-deal Brexit as part of a strategy to align Britain more closely with President Donald Trump’s United States.

“The government says there is a legitimate reason for proroguing parliament – but everybody knows that the reason for doing this is basically to keep parliament out of the way,” said David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

Bercow’s anger makes it likely, therefore, that he will enable rebel MPs to frustrate Johnson’s intentions, although the prime minister’s aides suggest he may then call an election.


‘Ideological journey’

The son of a taxi driver, Bercow was first elected as a Conservative MP in 1997, although his willingness to challenge his party has convinced many colleagues that he favours the opposition.

Observers acknowledge the speaker has been on an “ideological journey”.

“Bercow has had a past which has been linked to the far right of the Tory party, but everybody has seen him moderate his position and move further and further towards the centre,” said Phinnemore.

Bale said, however, this shift did not explain how he has acted as speaker.

“He is simply absolutely determined to defend the rights of the legislature against the powers of the executive and would have behaved exactly the same way had he been dealing with a left-wing Labour government.”

Bercow has insisted he has only one allegiance, stating in March: “If I’m biased, I’m biased in favour of parliament.”

Speaker for the 21st century?

Nonetheless, the speaker has certainly not avoided colliding with fellow Tories – making a habit of clashing with the government over parliament’s role in the Brexit debate.

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Bale said despite such run-ins, Bercow has remained unharmed.

“I suspect this latest confrontation is another collision and he will probably once again emerge unscathed, because there is a majority of MPs who think – by and large – he does a very good job standing up for their rights against those of the government.”

Another feature of Bercow’s tenure has been his novel interpretation of parliamentary procedures, reflecting his understanding of how the speaker’s role is changing.

“He realises that the job of the speaker in the 21st century in a ‘post-truth world’, if you like, has changed and that were he simply to do what others had done before him, parliament would be outmanoeuvred every single time by a government that is not prepared to play by the normal rules. And, therefore, he has had to overrule precedent and set a course into uncharted waters,” said Bale.

Bercow certainly revels in this power to interpret procedure.

“I certainly think he is a more interventionist speaker than previous speakers,” White said. “He has taken a much more active role in interpreting what he thinks the will of the House is at any given moment and standing up for the House against the executive.”

But perhaps Bercow’s most important contribution has been to provide consistency amid the many moving parts of the Brexit debate.

Phinnemore said: “These are particularly challenging times and there is enormous consistency in his position.

“If you are aiming to deliver an orderly Brexit, then most of his positions seem to have been consistent – particularly if you also want to support the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.”

Source: Al Jazeera