Other than the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Commons is arguably the most important MP. Responsible for keeping order, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to speak and Parliamentary procedure is followed, the post has been filled by John Bercow since 2009.
The Speaker is subject to one crucial rule: he must remain politically neutral at all times. This rule is understandable: it would be unfair if the Speaker used his or her position to give one party’s MPs more time to speak in debates or sway MPs’ opinions one way or the other. As a result, Conservative MP Bercow quit his party in 2009 after being elected Speaker.
However, in recent weeks he has come under fire for not respecting this rule of neutrality. The first incident involved Donald Trump. Following a petition, signed by almost 2 million people, which called for the President’s invitation to a State Visit to be revoked, the Speaker said that he would be ‘strongly opposed’ to it taking place.
Theresa May’s original intention was for Trump to address MPs and Peers in Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament. However, the Speaker, who is one of three people who can decide whether to grant this wish said that he ‘would not wish to issue an invitation’ to him. Bercow justified the comments by saying Parliament should stand against his ‘racism and […] sexism’.
Fair enough, you might say. We must condemn the President’s sexist views and racist comments. There are, arguably, two issues here. Firstly, it could be argued that it is simply not the Speaker’s place to refuse access to something which the elected Government support. If May were to go back on her decision, that would be her choice. Secondly, and more importantly, whilst we may not agree with the USA’s choice of president, he was democratically elected and has a mandate to represent his country. It is quite surprising that Bercow thought that he must speak up now against Trump whilst electing not to say anything in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2015 State Visit. Xi, by contrast, is not democratically elected into power and abuses human rights in his country.
However, it could also be argued that this is exactly what the Speaker is there for: to prevent Parliament from doing the morally wrong thing just to stay on Trump’s good side. It may be in the best interests of our country to offer him a State Visit but, as Bercow has said many times himself, the public look to Parliament as an example.
Then, just a few days later, the Speaker made the headlines again. It was reported by the press that at a student-led event at Reading University last month, Bercow revealed that he had voted Remain in June’s EU referendum. Of course, the Speaker has a right to an opinion and a right to vote, however, this could be seen as him using his position to influence voters. Added to the fact that Speakers typically don’t allow themselves to be drawn into political debate, many see him as unfit to preside over the House of Commons at a time when MPs are debating the process of exiting the EU. At the very least it was a stupid thing for the Speaker to say as there would inevitably be questions asked over his political neutrality.
Whilst a vote of no confidence has been signed by one Tory MP, it has so far failed to gather any momentum and it is unlikely to do so. Even if his position as Speaker was put to a vote, support from Labour MPs and many other Conservatives would ensure that he would see off the challenge.
Bercow isn’t going anywhere and he may have got his way over Trump’s Westminster Hall visit. However, this isn’t the first time the Speaker has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons and I’m not sure how many more of these scandals he can survive… Watch this space.