John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has branded Boris Johnson’s planned suspension of parliament “a constitutional outrage”. Let’s explore what this means for Bercow and the historically non-partisan role he holds.
The Speaker’s role is to hold order in the Commons, and to ensure the smooth running of day-to-day parliamentary matters. Since the 19th century, the Speaker has been expected to be an impartial figure, but this expectation is fraught with complications. Only MPs are allowed to speak in the Commons, so the Speaker must be elected. This means that a whole constituency is effectively unrepresented in Parliament, as the Speaker does not vote on bills.
It is a taxing job to hold order in the Commons, with accusations of party bias thrown around regularly, and Bercow has been a hugely controversial Speaker since his election a decade ago.
However, with his dramatic statement yesterday, he has well and truly thrust himself into the political sphere as a high stakes player with real power. He has seemingly expanded his usually administrative role to take on the job of constitutional gatekeeper, and has taken the duties of the Speaker far beyond any recent, or historical, precedent.
Brexiters view him as a saboteur of the highest order, ripping up the rule book to serve his pigheaded, anti-democratic ideology. Remainers, on the other hand, now see him as a patriotic public servant gone rogue, willing to sacrifice his career to stand up for the Commons and British democracy as we know it.
Whatever your views, it is clear that the winds of change have begun to blow. With accusations of “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” behaviour flying about, could we be moving towards a more Americanised system?
The Speaker of the American House of Representatives is inherently partisan, as they are elected by members of the House who strictly vote within their own party, so the Speaker is always a member of the majority party. The American Speaker explicitly pushes the majority party’s agenda, and exploits the position’s role to control when bills are heard, ensuring that their party can pass legislation at their convenience.
This model would be fundamentally unhealthy for British democracy. Partisanship has gripped the American system like a degenerative disease, paralysing it to the point of immobility. It would be a tragedy if this blight infected the inherently impartial mechanisms of British politics.
Whether you view Bercow’s intervention as a justified one-off, or a sign he is taking us in a dangerous new direction, all eyes are on Mr Speaker when the inevitable election is announced. Will his ‘New Way’ stick, or is just another symptom of the catastrophic quagmire that is Brexit?
By Max Ingleby